Ho Ho Ho… bring on the snow, or at least some colored lights and the sound of big wheels in the moonlight. Nothing says it’s Christmas like fancy colored trucks sporting festive lights while traveling along the highways and byways of this great land. Those trucks roll day and night to stores or distribution centers from Maine to California and from Florida to Washington state. They also stop in every city and town along the way. They roll every day – not just one day each year. Many of these trucks are piloted by family men and women who have one common desire… to be home for the Holidays. But first, they’ll need to do this one last run!
I think all of us have had that conversation at some point. Dispatch always plays the sympathy card saying, “Driver, if you don’t do it all those kids will be disappointed.” The biggest, strongest, hairy armed drivers will fold with emotion every time. Never mind the sacrifice to themselves or their own family. Isn’t that the spirit of Christmas in a nutshell? Gifts, no matter how big or small, are graciously received and cherished in the name of love.
Christmas is about giving – Christ was born on this earth in the lowliest of places. There were no fancy hospitals or high class hotels. His mother Mary was given a place to rest in a stable behind a lowly inn, and Jesus was born right there, in the town of Bethlehem, just 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem.
We have all heard the story of His birth and the struggles they encountered while traveling. Many of their troubles could be re-enacted today since we have the same problems 2000 years later. Bad roads, poor weather, and no place to rest. I’m still waiting for three wise men to bring me gifts of gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. I’m not too sure what I would do with the last two things, but that gold would sure come in handy.
As with most years in December I try to think of an experience in my life that has meaning to me then spin a yarn around it. This story doesn’t have any disclaimers – the people are real, and the places are still there. A few days ago, I was sitting in my favorite chair at Aunt Barb’s Cafe (our kitchen table), and we were discussing what to write for this article. In unison we both said, “The year Christmas almost didn’t happen.” Can you imagine that? The driver in your life isn’t home for the Holidays. What will the children say, or their friends? The teasing they will receive when word gets out. I can hear it now, “Your dad doesn’t love you,” or, “He would rather be on the road with his friends than with you.” Children can be cruel, and they will be if given the chance.
This story starts out like most work weeks with a call from dispatch (I shouldn’t have answered the phone, but I did). “Hey driver, I’m in a bind and need you to do me a favor. You will have plenty of time to make it home for the Holidays. It’s a straight load to Miami and back… shouldn’t take you more than three maybe four days.” I blindly look at the phone and swear under my breath. “So, you will do it, right?” That’s where I should have said, “I’m sorry sir, you have rung the wrong number,” then hung up. But I’m a nice person and it’s the holiday season. So now I don my red suit and fire up the old red sled in the barn to find an extra load of big, shiny, firm red Michigan apples bound for a Publix grocery store in Miami, Florida. If only I hadn’t answered the phone!
I remember as a kid getting Florida oranges in our Christmas stocking. It was a treat not often received this far north, as 65 years ago we didn’t have the luxury of cross country trucking and two day delivery from the more tropical climates, and when we did, they were very expensive. My hope was that some children in the south would have the same reaction to receiving a firm cold climate apple. So, onward I go, with my son Steve, to find our load. It wasn’t far since I can see those apple orchards from my kitchen window. After getting hooked up and scaled out, we had supper at home and planned to leave later that night. It’s a hard day of driving (1,400 miles), but this was before ELDs, and I always thought if the truck would start, I must have hours to run! Load it like a freight train, fly it like an airplane.
We were in and out of the Publix grocery warehouse in record time, we even left a little “donation” for the guys doing the unloading. Now the plan was to call dispatch and head north. Hold up, not so fast, driver, there’s been a change of plans. Go find a place to park and we will contact you with your load info. “What? My load back is supposed to be in Cairo, Georgia, already loaded and ready to go.” Dispatch answered, “It is, but first we want you to do a favor for a friend. You know trucks are short this week and he needs to move this load. Since you’re in the area and it’s on your way we didn’t think you would mind.” Really? Having my son with me, I had planned to spend a day or so with him as a little Christmas vacation. “There is plenty of time driver, it doesn’t load until later today in Belle Glade, Florida, only an hour or so away.”
While waiting for our info, I found a shopping mall in Fort Lauderdale. After parking the truck, we ventured in, and wow, the people who live there sure live differently than the folks where we come from. Can you say expensive and high class. I remember the two of us looking around for a gift to give Steve’s mother, something she would never forget. I can’t for the life of me right now remember what it was, but we did find some trinket to take home, and they even gift wrapped it for us. I just went and asked my wife what we got her, and she said the most beautiful emerald bracelet and matching earrings. Then, with a disgusted look on her face, she said, “Don’t you remember?” Guess we know where the profits from that trip went.
The two of us escaped the shopping mall without having to mortgage the truck, so that was a good thing. The load info came in and wow, it wasn’t a simple load and go at all – it was three picks of produce and two drops starting in Belle Glade, Florida, with sweet corn, then heading down the coast to Homestead, Florida, and then a third stop back up in Plant City. Bear in mind we were three days out already, and I was yet to catch more than a couple short hours of sleep. Fortunately, it is only a short trip from the last stop to our first drop, so off to Lakeland, Georgia we went.
All I remember about that night was passing out as soon as we arrived. Someone woke us about daylight. The receiver sorted their stuff from the trailer then reloaded us and sent me on my way. By the time we got our last drop done it was too late to pick up our preloaded wagon in Cairo, Georgia, but we started heading in that direction, planning to stop and get a motel room to cleanup and find something decent to eat. We had been smelling all those barbecue shacks and restaurants as we rolled through Georgia, and as luck would have it, there was a little shack across the road from where we stopped with a simple sign that said “SMOKIE’S – the original home of Brunswick Stew.”
Steve and I were hungry enough to chew the covering off the dash. We raced across the road and a big man met us at the door. He said, “Slow down y’all, my eats were made slow and should be enjoyed slow to savor the flavor.” There were many choices, and everything looked delicious, but I was intrigued by the Brunswick stew. Smokie, our host, brought out a plate loaded with meat and corn bread, then his signature dish – the stew. What a treat for the taste buds! I have had Brunswick stew many times since then, but none have compared to what we enjoyed that night. We ate our fill and loaded up some to go boxes for the trip home. As I got up to pay the bill, Smokie waved a huge hand and smiled, saying, “Merry Christmas boys, safe travels going home.” I have traveled that road many times since and I have never been able to find his BBQ shack again.
The next day we did our drop and hook then headed north with two days to travel 1,000 miles. We had plenty of time to be home for Christmas Eve. We were supposed to be back much sooner than that, but with our extra loads, things got stretched out. We had an uneventful ride through Georgia and into Tennessee. It started raining and I got sleepy, so we pulled into the Petro in Knoxville, TN. I planned to sleep a few hours and then run the last 600 miles home. I awoke sometime in the night and looked around only to see nothing. The fog had rolled in so thick we couldn’t see much more than the trucks parked beside us. My first thought was, “We better get rolling or we are going to be here for a long time. We could miss Christmas if we don’t get far enough north to hit the temperature change and beat the fog.”
My greatest fear was the hill at the Tennessee/Kentucky state line. If it starts to freeze, we are in trouble. Freezing rain is a major problem in the Tennessee hills, but fog and freezing rain is a very bad combination. I woke my son so he could help me navigate and not drive over anything in the parking lot. Once we hit the road it wasn’t much better. The plan to outrun the weather didn’t work as well as I hoped. Slowly we picked our way through Knoxville and got started north only to hear on the CB the road was closed for an accident. Time to make a Plan B. The minutes were slipping away, and we were still more than 400 miles away from home.
I pulled off the road at one of the exit ramps and was lucky enough to contact a base station operator who gave us directions around the back up. We mapped it out on the trusty paper road atlas just to be sure it was truck friendly. Maybe under normal conditions it would be fine, but in the fog, it was not so good. We committed to the road and pointed the truck towards the North Pole (and home), as I urged all 425 reindeer under my hood to start flying – if only we had a red-nosed Rudolph to lead the way. As we started to climb the hill, the rain turned to snow, and the road iced over quickly. Things went from bad to worse. Ice was collecting on the trees and the snow was building up to the point of bending them into the travel lanes.
Working hard just to keep the truck on the pavement, I could barely see past my headlights. The trees started to hit the stacks and bang against the front of our trailer. I couldn’t see them, so Steve rolled his window down and leaned out the passenger side, holding on to the mirror bracket for support. With him guiding us around the low branches and me gripping the wheel as if our lives depended on it, we crawled up the hill and over the top. Fortunately, we had the whole road to ourselves since the locals were all at home snug in their beds while sugar plumbs danced in their heads. After a stressful couple of hours, we made it down the other side of the hill. We laugh about it now, but at the time it wasn’t very funny.
I don’t remember how long it took us to get back to the highway, but I do remember the promise I made to myself. I swore I would get that boy home for Christmas no matter how much adversity got in our way. I also promised to never do another favor for that dispatcher! The sun was up by the time we reached Corbin, Kentucky, and the fog lifted. We finally started to make up for the time we lost going around the traffic accident closure. Christmas Eve day is always busy on the roads, with last minute shoppers and families traveling to meet friends, and this day was no different. We stayed steady rolling northbound through Kentucky and Ohio until we found the drop yard in Toledo. It was very late in the afternoon, and everyone had gone home early to start all their holiday activities. We planned to do a quick drop and hook, cruise the last 30 miles home, and make it in plenty of time for supper at grandma’s house (a Christmas Eve tradition that we had for years).
As soon as I dropped my inbound trailer and backed up to the loaded one, I could see there was a problem. Everyone had left to go home, and no one had pulled my preloaded trailer out of the loading dock. Not only that, but it had rained at some point and the pit never got pumped out. The trailer was frozen into solid ice up to the axle hubs! My first impulse was to hook up and pull, but I knew that wouldn’t work without causing considerable damage to the trailer. Supper time came and went as we chipped ice. I used a hammer while Steve scooped the chips away till our hands hurt from the cold.
There was no one to call for any assistance, so we warmed ourselves in the cab, and then continued to work at freeing the trailer. The hours rolled past as we worked through the evening. After considerable effort we managed to pull the trailer out of the dock and free the brakes. Those last 30 miles to home took a lifetime for us to cover. We did, however, make it home before the clock struck midnight. My wife, the trusty inn keeper, welcomed us into a warm house, gave us a hot (but very late) meal, and gifted us a quiet place to rest.
As this 2023 holiday season rolls around, make plans to spend time with your family. You have all year to make money and please dispatch. This is the time to please those who mean the most in your life. If you have to break the rules, drive all night and most of the next day, slide over a mountain pass in the freezing fog, then chip a trail through the ice, do it! Make the effort to get there because home is where the heart is. This trip down memory lane has sharpened my appreciation for the simpler things. I am not one of the wise men, but I have traveled many nights following a distant star (or maybe it was just headlights) to arrive bearing gifts from a distant land. I learned the best gifts can’t be purchased from a store and gift wrapped – they are exchanged through personal sacrifice and given from the heart.
After all these years, the gift that keeps on giving is the memory of time spent with my son, and our experiences traveling together. I may have forgotten the trinkets we gave to one another, but every year we relive the trip and retell this trucker Christmas story. If you can’t make it to see the folks in your life, at least call them and wish them a Merry Christmas. Aunt Barb, Penny the pooch, and I will be traveling again this year to spread some happiness in the warmer climate of Phoenix, Arizona. I plan to don the red suit and load our sleigh with goodies from the North Pole, delivering more of those cold climate red apples to some kids there, along with some other surprises. So, from our house to yours, Ho Ho Ho… now go go go and deliver some Christmas cheer, 10-4!