This happened to me back in the summer of 1988.. At the time, I was hauling autoparts for a medium/large trucking company in St. Thomas, Ont.–that’s the place where Jumbo the Elephant was killed by a New York Central freight train 110 years ago, bumped from behind as he was running along the tracks in front of the locomotive; the impact sent him careening headfirst into an embankment and the stem of his tusk buried itself in the soft tissue of his oversize brain—but that’s another story.
It’s a hot Friday afternoon and I end up in Wooster, Ohio, the Home of Rubbermaid as the billboard proclaims (“who is this Rubbermaid, and how can I meet her?”), and I know my hours of service are getting long. After three hours in the loading dock of a trim plant, I’m running back to the Canadian border through traffic snarls outside of Toledo, and then the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit is backed up onto the I-75–even though I know a shortcut down Fort Street, I’ve got 17 hours on the clock when I clear customs on the Windsor side. Dispatcher insists they’re going to put me to bed, and after I growl, the operations manager comes on the line and insists some more. So I drop the trailer with disgust and a burning sensation in my pocket where I’ve got three Toronto Blue Jays tickets behind first base for tomorrow’s game and I was hoping to take my boys, Matthew and Alex, nine and eleven years old, who live in Toronto and who I only see every other week, or not even. Never make the1:05 pm start, I realize. After laying over eight hours, dispatch will expect me to pick up a load down here. Hopefully, I’ll find something going east, but I’ll never make it to the ballpark in time…But it looks like I’m going to make last call at the Golden Nugget–across the street from the motel.
The motel is owned by an Indian family where the company lays us over, tucked behind a donut shop in a quasi-industrial part of Windsor, the lights of the airport blinking in the distance. Country Style Donuts on one side of the road and a country bar on the other. The motel owner gives me a Labatt’s Blue as I check in. And after a quick shower, I’m hoofing it across the road to quaff a few more.
It’s an edgy country bar, with its own Windsor rent-a-cop stationed on the premises because it’s Friday night. The band is called the Southern Diplomats and there’s a Stars and Bars flag draped over the pedal steel. They play straight ahead, hard-driving country and safety-boot rock, spliced with some Bob Seegar from across the Detroit River. Imagine “Katmandu” done to a driving four-beat, steel-toed shuffle.
A few beers later I can still hear the trucks rattling along Howard Ave., on their way to the 401 or the border, or Chrysler or Ford or GM plants. Without sleep I can feel a major headache sweeping in like a summer storm. I’m shooting pool with some CanTruck drivers and their dates, and they joke about one of them who stops at every rest stop from Oshawa to Windsor. They chant the names in unison: “Cambridge, Ingersoll, West Lorne, Tilbury.” Outside it’s hot summer night, cars vying for parking spots in the gravel lot, their occupants anxious to make last call.
The band finishes with a Waylon Jennings tune and the beer glasses smack the tables demanding an encore. “Dance with me trucker,” this small gal whispers to me, dark feathered hair, leaning into me. The Southern Diplomats strike up “Freebird” and we sway across the floor for eight minutes. She drives me in her little Acadian to a bungalow in the east end. I remember a porch light radiating green light, spilling into the suburban emptiness.
In the morning I’m hung over like a split rock and try to shade my eyes taking a taxi back to the motel. The dispatcher sounds cheery enough and sends me across the river to a Ford windshield plant in Wixom, Michigan to look for an empty trailer. My last hope to make Toronto before supper just evaporated. No empties in Wixom, so I’m sent to look in Taylor, Michigan, and finally to a Chevy bus plant on Charlevoix in Detroit, where there’s an empty three-legger waiting in the parking lot. Two hours to load 26 skids of road salt by the river in Windsor, and I’m finally heading back home, windows wide open in the old Ford Louisville, the 318 Detroit singing and slightly streaming grey smoke from the stack. The ball game crackling on CHYR Leamington: Jimmy Key of the Jays pitching against Jack Morris for the Tigers, and Key has a no-hitter going into the top of the eighth, and they both have one-hitters at the end of the ninth. I’m just taking the ramp off the 401 at Hwy. 4 when the static roars as Buck Martinez homers in the 13th to win the game for the Jays, 2-1.
Back home in my converted chicken house in St. Thomas: no ballgame, no kids, just the scent of that girl’s feathered hair still lingering in my nostrils, and the sound of the Norfolk and Southern freight train chuffing outside my window. “Dance with me trucker,” she said.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs