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O C T O B E R  1 9 9 9

Americana On the Big Road

Illustration by Douglas Fraser

The life and times of a truck-driving poet

by Matthew Doherty

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

THERE'S a drop lot off Ballard Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Proline Carriers used to keep some trailers, and that's where my trainer, Ed Cooney, and I grabbed an empty to run up to Wakefield, where we got a load of cardboard packaging bound for Kettering, Ohio. I had graduated from the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, in May of 1995. It was now October 10. In the intervening months I had gone to trucking school, gotten my commercial driver's license, and found a job. I had already completed the two-week orientation in Nashville, Tennessee, and would have been put with a trainer there, but I had to fly home for my niece's christening. I met up with Ed Cooney at a truck stop in Mansfield; we drove trailerless to Worcester to get an empty, and thus the mighty coincidence of beginning my trucking career in the shadow of my alma mater.
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From the archives:

"No Phone, No Pool, No Pets," by Ian Frazier (March, 1996)
"The year I turned thirty, something came over me and I left my apartment in New York City and flew to northern Michigan and walked and hitchhiked to a small town and bought a used van and paid a local mechanic who said he specialized in van conversions to put a bed and a fold-down desk in it."

Related links:

A Webzine for truck-drivers that offers news, essays and columns, opinion polls, tips for new drivers, and more.

Movin' Out On Line
"The Journal of the Trucking Industry." The online edition of a newspaper, available at truckstops across the country, which "focuses on a range of subjects of interest to drivers."

Truckline: The Trucking Network
The Web site of the American Trucking Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of the truck-driving industry.

America's Driving Force
A training program for new truck drivers.

CB Radio Resources on the 'Net
News and general information about CB radio usage, including FCC operating regulations and a guide to codes and lingo.

It was a beautiful fall day, and Holy Cross shone atop Mount Saint James. I could see the brick academic buildings, and the dorms where some of my friends lived. After ten days with Ed (who suffered from some kind of sleep apnea, and kept me awake every night in the truck) I would get a road test in Nashville and be assigned my own truck. My oft-ridiculed plan, conceived that spring, was falling into place.

Spring semester of senior year I didn't quite have my act together. I wanted to go to graduate school and get a master of fine arts in poetry, but around March I realized that I had missed the deadlines. I figured I could work at some kind of job for a year and then apply, but I wasn't going to move back home, to Scituate, and I didn't want to spend all my money on some ridiculous rent in Boston. Somehow I came up with the idea of driving a truck. Trucking school would cost about $3,800, but that was less than rent somewhere for a year, and I knew that truckers made good money, and I had loans to pay down, and I liked to drive, and I'd have time to think.

IT was March of 1996, and I was in the TV room of a truck stop in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. I was the only one in the room, typing out poems on an electric typewriter so that I could send in my application to the M.F.A. program at the University of Alabama. A driver walked in, a black guy in his fifties, and sat down in front of the TV. There was a football game on.

"I hope the typewriter doesn't bother you," I said to him. "I'm about done."

"Naw, it won't bother me. What you typing, anyway?"

I thought about lying, but I told him. "A bunch of poems. I'm applying to graduate school in creative writing."

"You a driver?"

"Yeah, I drive for Proline."

"Graduate school. That means you went to college, got a degree, now you're driving a truck, and you're gonna go back? How can you afford all that?"

"If I get in, they'll have me teach freshman English, but I won't have to pay tuition and I'll get paid enough to live on."

"Well, there you go," he said, laughing. "Beats the hell out of driving a truck, don't it?"

THE trucks are on CB channel 19. When there's a lot of CB traffic, you might be able to hear and be heard for only about a mile or two in each direction. Late at night you'll get a little more range. Most of the talk is about business: eastbounders asking westbounders where the cops are, how the weather is behind them, how traffic is rolling through town. If you want to shoot the breeze with someone about life in general, good form dictates that you take it to another channel after a couple of minutes. But late at night nobody much minds that kind of conversation.

The CB is like weather, each radio putting out a cloud of conversation, or maybe keeping silent like a patch of blue sky. Conversations build like storms, dissipating when the energy is talked out of them. If you're rolling the same way as the conversation, you'll be with it for a while -- hundreds of miles sometimes. But if a bunch of eastbounders are talking and you're westbound, you'll hear only a few minutes of it; then you'll blow through it as if it were a squall line.

A movie like Smokey and the Bandit would have you believe that all truckers talk in numbers, in an obscure code that takes years to master. Not so. There are a few operative numbers, but trucker talk is more thesaural than codified, privileging euphemism over shorthand. To talk like a trucker you need to acquire the art of understatement. You need to have several ways of saying the same thing without using the literal description.

First off, you need to know how to address other drivers. "Driver" is the preferred term. "Hand" is acceptable. "Good buddy" is not. "Good buddy" is an insult, implying that someone is a good buddy. Save that for when a driver gobbles up half your lane while he's trying to pass you around a curve and when you ask him if he's all right, he says, "You just mind yourself, driver." Tell him, "Well, you just keep on truckin' there, good buddy." That'll burn him up.

You can also address a driver by the truck he's driving: "Hey, cabover..." (type of truck); "Peterbilt, you got it on?" (make of truck); "Northbound Averitt..." (name of company); "Hey, parking lot..." (car carrier); "Mr. Chicken Hauler..." (chicken hauler).

You've got to know what to call things. A car is a "four-wheeler" -- usually used pejoratively, often preceded by "damn." An eighteen-wheeler is a "bigtruck." A cop is a "bear," a "smokey," a "smokey-bear," a "full-grown bear," a "plain-wrapper" (unmarked), a "county mountie" (as opposed to a state trooper), or a "bear in the air" (in a helicopter). If he's got his lights going, he's "running the discos." If he's got a car pulled over, he's got a "customer," or a "captured four-wheeler," or simply a "captured." A smokey on an on-ramp with a radar gun is "shooting you in the back." From an overpass he's "shooting you in the face." If he's in the median, he's "in the comedian."

A weigh station is a "chicken coop." If the coops are closed, you can say "The coops are closed," but it's better to say "locked up," or "six letters," or "The big word, driver. Mash your motor." If the scales are open, they're "wide open," or "rolling you across," or "checking your ground pressure."

A tire tread in the road is a "gator." If there's ever a real alligator in the road, I don't know what you say. The left lane is the "hammer lane," the right lane is the "granny." A rest area is a "pickle park," a tollbooth is a "cashbox," an ambulance is a "meat wagon," mile markers are "yardstickers," the interstate is "the big road," a two-lane is a "skinny." An accident is a "wreck," but if you're going to describe the wreck, don't get too creative with adjectives and action verbs. "A bigtruck and a four-wheeler got together." That's enough.

In general, cities and states should be referred to by their nicknames. If you're northbound in Kentucky and trying to tell a southbounder that you haven't seen anything since an accident you passed around Nashville, you say, "You look good back to the Volunteer. There's a wreck before you hit the Guitar, but it might be rolling all right now." New Orleans is "the Mardi Gras"; Birmingham is "Smoke City," or simply "the Smoke"; Chicago is "the Windy"; Fort Wayne is "the Fort."

Sometimes you'll hear a "10-36" (time check) or a "10-33" (accident), but the only numbers you really need are 20, 10-4, and 42. 20 means "location." "20 on the full-grown?"

"He's rolling south, just put the thirty-eight yardsticker in his pocket, discos goin'." A "10-4" would be appropriate here, or "Copy the thirty-eight."

42 is 10-4's first cousin. 10-4 means "I heard what you said," and 42 means "I hear what you're saying."

"Northbound, how's it looking getting through that construction?"

"Clusterfuck, driver. I'd go the bypass around it."

"10-4 on the bypass, 'preciate it."

"There ain't but two seasons out here anymore: winter and construction."

"42 on that."

10-4 can be split up and used as a sort of call and response. "Southbound, you're gonna want to run the bypass around this construction, -4?"

"Yeah, 10-. I was just thinking that. You look good back to the Wolverine. Coops are locked up."

Whatever you do, don't throw in too many truckingisms. Not many guys say "Keep on trucking." "Have a good ride your way" is better. Once you've driven for twenty years, you'll have earned the right to say something hokey like "Keep her between the ditches." But by then you'll know enough not to say it.


The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

Matthew Doherty is an M.F.A. student in the creative-writing program at the University of Alabama. His article in this issue won first prize in The Atlantic's 1998 student essay-writing competition.

Illustration by Douglas Fraser.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; On the Big Road - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 24-30.