Christmas came, and I was dropped off in Phoenix for a couple of days with the family, while Tom pressed on back to northern California. My four weeks straddled the holiday quite nicely, two weeks on either side.
Truth be told, I spent most of that time battling some kind of horrible stomach ailment. (I had recovered from the Great Burrito Incident; this was something else.) My one stop in Phoenix, and I was spending that being violently ill. Neither of us said it, but it was one more strike against this career choice. But we couldn't afford to quit. The Plan was to tough it out, soldier on, and give it one year. We would stick to the plan.
And just as I was feeling strong enough to get up, and maybe see the kids... back out on the road I went.
Tom was excited about his Christmas present; some newfangled thing called a "satellite radio". Up to that point we had gotten by with his plain old AM/FM tuner (some of you kids might be old enough to remember those). That guy had programmed in every Classic Rock station west of Denver, and it never failed; every morning, someone was carrying the "Bob & Tom show". Whether it was "The Thunder" or "The Eagle" -- or one odd swath of countryside presided over by "The Beaver" -- I must have heard "Barracuda" and at least one Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin song in each state I passed through. (If I never hear "Dream On" again, it'll be way too soon!)
"Next time we stop, I'll have to figure out how to hook this up!" he would crow, and then he'd dive under the dash and tinker while I took us on up the road. I kept offering to help... after all, I always had a knack for wiring up sound equipment... but he insisted on keeping me driving. "You need the practice!"
And practice I did. I hauled 45,000 pounds of paper down from Albany, OR, to the LA Times plant in Olympia, CA. I found my way through Oakland, where the streets were so narrow, the building almost touched at the roof tops. We must have crossed Mt. Shasta at least three times, each time with a different kind of weather system: once with rain, once with snow, and once with fog so heavy, you couldn't see the drop-off on the other side of the guard rail.
I learned when to use the jake-brake, truck stop etiquette (saying "no thank you" to the "lot lizards"), how to plan my fuel stops so I could get the free showers -- always a top concern -- and how to best pass the time when you arrived at the dock and found yourself in an hours-long line to load or unload.
It was hard work, separated by enormous stretches of potentially deadly boredom. The intimidating thoughts of failure or catastrophe began to ebb, though every goof-up I made would bring them roaring back. At one point, passing through Los Angeles, I managed to wipe out one of the back tires of our trailer without noticing it!
But that had been another "forgivable mistake"; we just swapped out trailers at the lot in Fontana. Things were getting better, on the whole. I hadn't screwed up any paperwork since that first load, and had kept up on my DoT timelogs faithfully. I was almost starting to feel good about things. And I wanted to tell someone.
I had to wait a while before we came to rest long enough to worry about calling home, and it happened that we hit a good stopping point just before New Year's. I got a shower, and a phone card, and went to call my sweetheart. I couldn't wait to hear her voice, and let her pass the phone around. So I dialed, and...
You could tell right away she was crying; I asked if everyone was alright. She said yeah, but something was wrong. I tried our usual in-joke. The one I used throughout her long pregnancy with Number Three. He was something of a surprise, and at least once a day I found a reason to look shocked and cry out, "You mean you're pregnant??" It was especially funny in public, when she was in the third trimester and looked like she was ready to deliver right there. Guaranteed laughs!
But this time she just burst into tears. "How did you know?" she wailed.
I came to the table just as Tom finished ordering. The waitress was one of those fading beauties you see in places like truck stops; Tom dutifully flirted with her, and said to me as she flounced away, "Hey, did you check her out?"
"I don't dare look... I'll probably get her pregnant," I muttered. I told him about our news, but didn't tell him all of it. I left out the horrible time my lovely bride had been enduring; the kids catching whatever I had during Christmas break, her getting sick and not being able to contact anyone in the family for help, the bills looming if I couldn't graduate and start driving on my own. Tom thought it was great.
"You'll have four, now?" he said, over and over. "Good thing you won't have to be around for the tough parts!" Good thing? I didn't think so.
After that, it all seemed to come clear to me. I did alright, but I still couldn't do it by myself. The only time I successfully parked was a delivery in Twin Falls, Idaho, where we only had to pull up level with the side of the building. From there we got word that we were "deadheading" (driving an empty trailer) back down to Phoenix.
We cut down through Nevada on state highway 95. I ate the best pizza I've ever tasted in Elko. Whore-houses line the 95, it seemed, female voices on the CB offering "free showers, conversation, and NO obligation." One place was celebrating a 25 year anniversary with discounts for "club members". Another offered a "frequent visitor card" with some oddly worded perks.
"They're calling you, Tad!" Tom would hoot from the back of the truck. He imagined the little "smoke fingers", like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, reaching out of the radio and leading drivers by the nose into these places.
But we drove on, not interested in the dubious goods being advertised. We pressed through the neon over-load of Las Vegas; through the deep, desert dark of Parker, Arizona, and down highway 69 through Wickenburg until we passed my childhood home.
We arrived back at the terminal, and Tom shook my hand. "Hope to see you out on the road," he said. "It was a pleasure driving with you. I hope the next guy does as good a cleaning job on my truck!" We laughed, and he wandered off to do whatever it was he did.
I went on to the last stage of my apprenticeship: the big test. One of the dispatchers climbed up into a cab with me, and had me drive around to put me through the paces. We hooked up to a trailer, went around the block, came back and maneuvered around the lot. Back up, turned around... all the usual everyday things a driver needs to do.
And I failed.
"Don't worry," he said, "We can keep you on at student pay for a few more weeks and let you practice. You'll get it." $300 a week. For a few more weeks? I thought about what I was doing. Thought about the risks... of damage... of death... and even under the best of circumstances, of simply being gone while a baby came and my kids slowly got used to me being gone.
"No thanks," I said. And, even though I had spent the better part of the last year learning to drive... I walked away.