Sunday night, late November 2009. I wake from a nightmare where I’m trying to leave for work but first I have to defend my thesis, teach my three-year old to skateboard, calm a screaming baby, order parts for my pickup, negotiate an overdue medical bill, hang a new front door, plan a surf trip, fix my bicycle, do a little job-hunting and have a financial discussion with my wife—but whenever she opens her mouth, her words are replaced by Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers warbling away on an acoustic number titled Seagull.
“Seagull, you must’ve known for a long time,” sings Wifey-Rodgers, finger-wagging, hand on her hip in a matter-of-fact posture, “The shape of things to come. Now you fly through the sky, never asking why…”
And I snap my eyes open, tangled in a woolen blanket, sweating like a stuck pig and slam my fist down on the clock-radio, thereby silencing any further musings from those crusty Casino Rockers. The angry red digital reads 8 p.m., and I nodded off after 6.
With only an hour and a half of sleep, I’m all-too aware the nightmare bears a striking resemblance to my waking life: Full-time grad student and full-time trucker, father of two kids under three, husband of one over-worked wife, owner of a ’66 Chevy Truck, occasional handyman, skateboarder, surfer, recent recipient of a BA from Portland State University…
And to further compound issues, my brand-new laptop shit the bed last week; I have a huge final paper due in my 500-level Social Science course, both the kids have terrible colds, and my ancient PC crashed this afternoon, thereby negating hours of editing. Naturally, I reacted by slamming shit around the closet I call my office, bellowing like a Bull Elk and getting in an argument with my wife who is no fan of my prodigious temper.
And now, frayed beyond description and days beyond exhaustion, I have to go to work.
I stagger through the shower, struggle into Carhartts, boots and a sweatshirt and sheepishly accept the lunch my wife has packed. Outside, I fire up my frigid old Chevy and drag my exhausted ass across the river to school for a quick stop at the library to check my email. Shortly before my computer crashed, I sent out a flood of cover-letters and resumés explaining my achievements, experience and aspirations. I am seeking all manner of jobs from Transportation Management to Grant Writing, Nonprofit Directorship, Heavy Equipment Sales, Market Research and Copy Editing
I’d also sent an instructor an earlier draft of my thesis-proposal and my research plans, which I titled, “From Kook to Killing it: An Ethnography of Surfing in The Pacific Northwest,” and I’d attached an exhaustive research plan involving interviews of notable locals, an annotated bibliography of the history of surfing here on our wind-battered coast, police reports and first-person anecdotes of the tribe-like life-ways and insular localism surrounding the sport—essentially everything one would need to begin a scholarly inquiry into the arc a surfer might travel from fledgling beginner to accepted expert.
The amount of sleep I will garner in the next 48 hours rests heavily on my instructor’s response to the approach I’ve spent hours putting together. Needless to say, I am in no mood to rewrite a term-project.
“Get real,” she writes in response. “You need to spend some time researching the difference between Grounded Theory and Ethnographic questions.”
To say the least, I’m pissed. First off, she’s splitting hairs and second off, I’ve never been told to ‘get real’ by a professor, especially a quintessential Social Science hack like her. She’s the very stereotype of tenured academia: Long flowing skirts, an excess of silver jewelry, liberal to a fault, a waifish product of the ‘sixties and endlessly reminding us of that fact. We’ve spent the better part of the term listening to her drift from topic to topic with no discernible thread, nodding and punctuating her sentences with a starry-eyed “yeah.” At least once a week, she’s slapped her Departmental Map on the projector—essentially a disorganized flow-sheet of bubbles and arrows outlining the interests, paradigms and intellectual facets of the Communication Studies Department.
“Yeah, before I started here at PSU, the Communication Department wasn’t communicating,” she’ll drone. “Yeah, so we had a process-oriented workshop and this was the outcome. Yeah… It’s really neat to see the results and the various places from which our collective academic thinking derives and overlaps.”
And she stands there beaming, oblivious to fact that not one person in the room has any idea what the fuck she’s talking about.
Defeated and irritated, I drive south to the cavernous produce warehouse where my semi sits loaded and waiting. Despite the forced-insomina, I’m glad for the escape of my thrice-weekly 537-mile round-trip to Port Angeles, Washington. I can do this shit in my sleep. In fact, I do this shit in my sleep.
I hit the yard on autopilot: load my lunch and toolbox into the Freightliner, tilt the nose, check oil, belt tension, coolant and power steering fluids. I climb up in the cab, check the brakes are set, slip the tranny in neutral, hit the starter and fire that sleepy diesel into roaring life. It’s three days after Thanksgiving and I’ve got a light load as a result. From the looks of my bills, I’m pushing 30 tons at best, ten shy of my legal limit, and most of it occupying the front two-thirds of my 48’ trailer.
By 11, the paperwork’s done and I’m rolling up Interstate 5 with a fresh cup of coffee in my hand. It’s a soft, foggy night, cool and quiet on the highway. I drop down into eighth gear over Sylvania Hill, my 500-horse Detroit Diesel making short work of a small knot of slower trucks as I crest the hilltop, flip on my jake-brakes, and begin my descent through the Terwilliger Curves into Portland.
I pass a fully-loaded log truck inside the second corner and kick my truck up to a smooth 60 down the wide, empty straightaway above Lair Hill. This is my kind of trucking: late night, not a soul on the road but us pros, and a nice, relaxing run into the hinterlands of Northern Washington. The phone’s not ringing, kids aren’t screaming and mentally, I’m nowhere near Portland State University. It’s a sad state of affairs when trucking relaxes me, but I learned long ago to take what I can get. And I despite myself, I have hopes of finding a new job, too.
I grab a steaming sip of coffee as I round the last curve into Portland, park my cup in its holder, look up and there’s a row of cars ahead of me, three-lanes deep and none of them moving. Adrenaline surges through me and I bring a boot to my service brake and double-downshift, the night’s quiet shattered by my roaring jakes and screeching tires. Almost immediately, my trailer jackknifes to the left. Simultaneously, I let off the brake and yank down the trolley valve—locking the trailer brakes but keeping the tractor rolling. I floor the fuel pedal, break the tractor tires loose and whip my wheel right, drifting the tractor away from the jackknife, sliding the entire truck to a thundering sideways-stop, just feet behind the parked cars.
I grab the CB-mic and key up on Channel 17, “Brake-check at the 299! Brake check at the 299!” I yell, looking up as the log truck goes hammering past the nose of my tractor with inches to spare, all 18 of his wheels locked in a chattering skid as he flails over the median and onto the fortuitously-located Ross Island off-ramp, barely missing a broadside collision with me.
“Northbound, we’re shut down at the 299! Slow ‘em down!” I roar into the CB, hoping any trucks up the hill have their radios on.
“Nice fuckin’ place for parked cars,” comments the log trucker, his surprise, fear, and anger audible over the airwaves.
With the smell of burnt rubber hanging in the air and my heart pounding in my chest, I look ahead to see why traffic is stopped: A Ford Expedition, or what’s left of one, rests on it’s side in the center lane a hundred yards down the highway, steam still rising from the obliterated front-end. Every window is broken, and there’s not a straight panel left—just a balled up metal mess and a debris trail. There aren’t any emergency vehicles yet either, just some stopped cars and one police officer waving traffic back toward the obvious off-ramp detour my log-trucking friend just took.
I drop the truck down into low and swing my tractor out wide. A few more trucks come creeping off the grade behind me, obviously heeding my warning, and I get in line and start down the off ramp, glancing out my window as I go. And there on the asphalt shoulder, 20 feet from my cab is a human being, or what’s left of one—assuredly ejected from the wreck down the road.
From the jeans and the sweatshirt and violence of the single-car accident, I assume the unnaturally twisted rag-doll is a young guy with a heavy foot, though there’s blood everywhere, dark in the street lights and pooling around the indiscernible form, obscuring any real possibility of identification. It’s clear his spine’s broken because he’s sprawled both on his back and almost on his stomach, hips plainly spun 270 degrees from their normal position. I can see a bit of his moppy, brownish hair clinging to his pulpy skull, which is horribly elongated and shaped like a butternut squash. His legs are shattered too, twisted and piled like tree-limbs after a windstorm, half under him, and half splayed out, bare-feet pointing in unnatural directions. One arm is clearly dislocated and rests above his head. The other doesn’t appear to be there at all, and that shocks me almost as much as the police-officer, who drapes a blanket over the form, leaving the head exposed.
While I’m certainly no stranger to death on the highway, it’s the most graphic thing I’ve ever seen a human body subjected to and I am numb with the shock of it. Back on the road, I ease the truck up to a steady 60 and start to digest the scene.
Somewhere back in the miles and the years, I heard truck-driving described as a good thing for a terrible person and a terrible thing for a good person. Like most drivers, I fall somewhere in the middle. And while I don’t care to count the number of hours I’ve logged alone with nothing but dashlights and demons, I’m all too aware of the shape these haunted thoughts can take. Foremost of them—and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts every trucker has it in the back of their mind—I wonder if there’s a mile-marker out there with my name on it? The near-misses, the wrecks, the snow, black ice, fog, rain, drunk-drivers, the perpetual exhaustion—your luck has to run out somewhere and the reaper is quick to settle accounts.
Death was there at the 299, I figured, and he got that poor soul and very nearly took me, a log-trucker, and the occupants of a few parked cars with him.
The miles tick on as I run up into the black night of Central Washington and the inevitable questions come: Why am I out here doing this for a living? What the fuck is wrong with me? How did I avoid that accident? What did I do differently? What if I’d moved a little faster getting dressed, or taken the curves a bit slower? Fuck man, if that log-truck was even the slightest bit closer to me…
Usually in this situation, my thoughts wind up like a runaway Kenworth until I pull over somewhere, conk out for an hour or two, and then high-tail it through the rest of the run. Not this night. I float through the wee hours, taking it easy, smoothing out every shift in my ten-gear pattern, kissing each dock I back into with the most gentle of taps, keeping the speedo steady and the brakes cool, thinking about my kids, my wife, my friends, the years I’ve spent trucking around the Pacific Northwest.
I make it back to Tualatin the next day around noon, unload and head home, passing mile-marker 299 at exactly 55 mph. I nap, shower, eat some dinner, play with my kids for almost 30 minutes and then head over the river to school. Back at a computer in the library, I find absolutely zero replies to the countless queries I’d sent out 24 hours before and I am both utterly discouraged and utterly unsurprised. While I enjoy Communication Studies, I wonder what job it’s supposed to lead to.
Idly, I check out the day’s news, where I learn that the victim of last night’s accident died later at the hospital. And suddenly I realize why the officer didn’t cover him entirely: When I drove past him, he was still alive, and likely in excruciating pain. Shocked and guilt-wracked for gawking at a dying man, I read on and learn he liked to DJ and spend time with his friends. I learn he is survived by a grieving family. I learn his life encompassed a scant 20 years. And I wonder as I walk across the leafy campus to my class, if he lived it well. I wonder too, if I’m living mine well.
Class is the same old scene and my instructor arrives characteristically late and begins her lecture with an analogy of kayaking in the ‘sixties versus kayaking now. There is no point to her tale and she naturally segues into her departmental map as the class doodle, clock-watch, and play on their lap-tops. “Now, for example, Dr. Kettlemeier works with grounded theory—which is essentially an Ethnographic approach,” she exhales nodding and rearranging some sort of batik-shawl about her shoulders. “Yeah… Now, who can tell me which instructors have similar approaches to the ethnographic paradigm?”
“Dave?” she calls, looking wildly around as if I’m nowhere to be found. “Maybe you can help us out, yeah? Dave is doing an Ethnographic Study of Northwestern Surfing,” she says, nodding emphatically, “Yeah…”
I sit for what feels like an eternity, staring into her watery eyes, realizing how utterly pointless such an endeavor actually sounds.
“No,” I tell her, picking up my book bag and starting for the door. “I’m not.”
“Uh, uh, I’m sorry?” she stammers, shaking her head, blinking as if my words have driven sand into her pupils. “You’re not? I don’t understand… Where are you going?”
“I’m going to get real,” I explain, my reference to her hypocrisy seeming to register in her shocked eyes. “And the only thing I’ve learned this term is that I can’t do that here.”
There’s an audible gasp and more than a few chuckles as I leave grad school forever.
Heading home, I feel light and unencumbered for the first time in years. I think of the kid on the highway and I think of my kids and I go home and unplug my alarm clock. I lay down to rest, every possibility I can imagine spread before me in my mind. I am not sure what I’ll do, but I’m proud of my decision, and have greatly lessened my chances of ever waking up to Bad Company again.
I’ll take what I can get.