Here’s a Father’s Day treat from the late, great Paul Hemphill.
ICC is a-checkin on down the line,
Well, I’m a little overweight
And my log book’s way behind;
Nothin’ bothers me tonight,
I can dodge all the scales all right;
Six days on the road
And I’m a-gonna make it home tonight . . .
During the week, when he would be on the road somewhere, the days at home began with the muffled slapping of screen doors and the dull starting of cars and I could look through the living-room window and see the same thing happening up and down the block: the other men, wearing drab blue factory uniforms or plain gray suits, carrying lunch pails or briefcases, going off to shuffle somebody’s papers or stand in somebody’s production line, a stolid army of beaten men moving out under the orders of fate to absorb whatever the world had to dump on them today. And when I saw them return in the late afternoon, their lunch pails empty and their chalky faces more pinched than ever now, my throat would_tighten and I would think, in the manner of a 12-year- old boy: My old man is better. Because I could not imagine then, nor can I imagine now, how a kid could get excited about a father like one of those; a father who wasn’t visible, a father who merely functioned. And because I knew that during the same day, in that nine hours between the going out and the coming back of the other men of the neighborhood, my old man had been Out There—Ohio, Kansas, California? Outwitting the Interstate Commerce Commission? Saving a life on the highway? Overtaking a Greyhound?—a mechanized Don Quixote challenging the world, spitting into its face the juice of a Dutch Masters Belvedere cigar, giving it a choice of weapons and then beating it at its own game. And, too, because I was faintly aware that a snarling four-ton Dodge pulling a sleek aluminum trailer was, unlike the portfolio of the insurance agent or the samples of the salesman, something a kid could sink his teeth into.
Then, on a Friday afternoon, my mother would be standing at the kitchen sink and suddenly say, with a slight inward smile I did not yet know, “Your daddy ought to be home soon.” And I would go out into the front yard, and shortly a mud-spattered red behemoth would top the long hill above the house, a clattering silver warehouse dragging behind, air brakes sneezing and air horns blasting at the wide-eyed kids gamboling on the sidewalks and the stunned old ladies swinging on their porches, the excitement swelling in my bony young chest until finally there was one final burp on the horns—for me—before the belching engine gasped and the whole rig shuddered to rest at the curb beside the house. “How-dee, I’m just so proud to be hyar,” he would yelp, Minnie Pearl at the Opry, swinging down from the cab like a Tom Mix dismounting—sunburned face, grimy hands, squinty piercing pale blue eyes, greasy overalls and pirate boots, a half-chewed cigar jammed in the corner of the mouth—the leathery adventurer, King of the Road, home from the wars. Neighborhood kids crowding around, daring to touch the simmering tires, while my old man digs through dirty socks and Cleveland newspapers and kitchen matches to produce a novelty-shop key to the City of Akron for me. A kiss for Mama and a hug for Sis, cowering, at the age of eight, in his presence. An hour in the vacant lot across the street, hitting mile-high pop flies until dusk over complaints from his wife (“Thirty-seven years old, acting like a boy”). Over supper, the stories of bad wrecks and truck stops and icy roads and outrunning the law and pulling the Appalachians at night, a born liar refining his art: “That fog was so bad I had to get out and feel that sign,” and “They got watermelons in Texas grow so fast the bottoms wear off before they can pick ‘em,” and “She had a face so ugly it wore out two bodies.” And afterward, a session at the old black upright piano in the living room, a self-taught Hoagy Carmichael: “I’d o’ learned to play with the left hand, too, but before they could mail me my second lesson the Injuns shot the Pony Express.” And finally to bed. Five days on the road, Birmingham to Akron and back, and he had made it home again tonight. He was my first hero and, the way things have been going lately, quite possibly the last.
So why, I am asking myself now, of all the good times we had together, why should I remember a bad one? The details are fuzzy. I must have been 18 or so. He came in off the road, but something was wrong. There was shouting. He talked about taking off again right after supper. My mother found a pint of booze in his overnight bag and, with hell-fire finality, flushed the contents down the toilet. He left. She and my sister were hysterical. It’s the son’s place to go find him and talk to him. Bewildered, I got into the car and raced into town, to the lot cluttered with tires and rusty engines and oil pans. I could see him sitting all alone in a dark corner of the cab, swigging from a pint, and when I pulled up and parked in the gravel beside the truck we tried not to look at each other. Blue lights laid a scary blanket over the lot. There was the desperate choking putt-putt-putt of a refrigerated trailer somewhere, broken by the occasional wail of a far-off train whistle, and after an interminable pause I heard myself say, “They’re crying.”
A gurgle, a cough. “Thought I’d get started early.”
“How come you did it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Made ‘em cry.”
“What’d you come down here for?”
“Mama said. I don’t know.”
“She shouldn’t o’ done that.”
“Well, she told me.”
He tilted back his head and began draining the bottle, his Adam’s apple quivering and some of the whiskey dribbling off to the side of his face, and his eyes looked like deep swollen ponds. I looked down and toed the gravel with my shoe while he finished. He sniffed and cleared his throat and then spoke in a frightened, vulnerable voice, a voice I had never heard come out of hun before. I’m not running anywhere, son. There’s a lot a boy don’t know. I don’t mean to make your mother cry, but sometimes a man’s, a man’s—” His voice had broken and when I dared look up at his face, bleached white by the pale lights on the lot, I saw that my old man, too, was crying.
Growing up is, of course, in line with the prevailing notion, a terrifying experience. But contrary to that notion, it is not accomplished in one giant symbolic leap, to the accompaniment of a dozen violins turning up full volume and the sudden brilliant dawning of a new and better day. Boys are not miraculously transformed into men through the first brutal sweaty defloration of a writhing rose in the back seat of a car, nor through the quaffing of eight beers without throwing up, nor by the stunning conquest of the neighborhood bully in defense of thy mother’s good name—although all of those events play a part in the transformation, however exaggerated their importance later becomes. No, growing up isn’t that simple. It may begin with a single pivotal moment, yes, but that moment is more likely to be one of defeat than of victory. In short, we must first discover that we do not know a goddamned thing and then take it from there. This has been known to take years.
Philosophically, theoretically, there is no good reason why it should take so long. Maybe one day we will become so sophisticated that we will modernize the whole system of maturing, organize it into an orderly program whereby young boys are weaned away from their childhood fantasies and patiently taught the mechanics of coping and therefore gently delivered into manhood as the grooming of young baseball players for the major leagues is done these days; you know, daily classes on Growing Up, regular weekly seminars with the old man where he speaks with candor about the times he screwed up and how it could have been avoided, and, finally, that ceremonial day of graduation into manhood just like the African tribes in television documentaries.
Maybe there are some fathers already doing that, but I doubt it. Because it is the nature of fathers to protect the old image, to set themselves up as infallible, and the nature of sons to swallow every bit of it. So growing up must begin with the shattering discovery that one’s father is not perfect, a knowledge not easily extracted or believed; and then you have to learn why he is not perfect; and, finally, you are getting somewhere when you determine how he has managed to compensate for this pitiable shortcoming.
That night in the lot haunted me for a long time. It isn’t easy to look on and see your father brought to his knees by mysterious devils. There was, indeed, “a lot a boy don’t know.” To this day—since it was a moment that embarrassed us both, we have never discussed it—I don’t know who the devils were. That would have been around 1954, when he was 43: about the time the Teamsters were beginning to make it difficult for independent, free-wheeling “lease operators” of his breed to make it; about the time more money was needed for us than ever before, my having attained college age; about the time a woman’s natural instincts for “respectability” were causing my mother to hack away at such issues as church and example-setting and a nicer house in a subdivision and a more secure job like driving a bus.
But the larger point is that I had seen him running scared, and it brought me to the first vague stirrings that life was not going to be easy or even fun; that life could be a bitch not above kicking you in the groin if you so much as winked at her; that there would be some terrible scars before it was done; that one day there would be a young boy looking up at me, wanting answers, and about all I might be able to give him in the way of solid advice would be to suggest he go into a clinch when they started working on the head. Here we had been working on the theory that he was unbeaten and untied, the last of the indomitable heroes, and now I knew differently and he knew I knew differently. From there, we began.
He has always seemed to treat everything that happened before he went into trucking as a prologue, which could explain why I have never been able to get much more than fragments about his growing up. I do know that he was born in 1911 at a tiny community in upper East Tennessee called Robbins, a then-prosperous but isolated mining and lumbering town that sat on a branch of the Southern Railroad between the birthplace of Sgt. Alvin York and the inaugural dam on the Tennessee Valley Authority system. Left fatherless at the age of eight, he got on a tram seven years later with his ailing mother and a sister and they went to live with relatives in Birmingham, never to return to the hills. He lacked a semester of English to graduate from high school, but instead of returning to finish—he has said he was a good student and could have gene to college if the money had been there, borne out every time I see him arrogantly complete the Sunday crossword of The New York Times with a ballpoint pen—he cut out for the Midwest to work at hard labor on the Rock Island Line. After a year or two he went back to Birmingham and married Velma Nelson, one of a husky coal miner’s six children, whom he had met one night while hanging around the steps of a Baptist church.
The Depression had hit rock bottom by then, and it was a scramble to stay alive. For a while he and a Greek named Mike Manos set up a news-butch operation on the daily excursion train running between Birmingham and Chattanooga—splitting $50 a week from the proceeds of newspapers, soft drinks and snacks at a time when most men felt lucky to earn $15—and later on he established a back-breaking one-man coal-mining business. I have heard some of the stories: how he and my mother won a drawing that gave them a free wedding on the stage of the Ritz Theater and a night in the honeymoon suite of the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, how she would get up well before dawn to make sandwiches to be sold on the train, how he painted the doctor’s house to pay for my birthing in 1936. I am sure that much of what he is today was shaped by those times, which is true with the great bulk of Americans who went through the Depression, but he is served well by a faulty memory of the whole thing.
Then, on a March morning in 1941, I awoke to the sounds of fierce sawing and hammering in the backyard. He was building wooden sideboards for a borrowed trailer and converting his dump truck to pull it, and with a war coming on he was announcing plans to go into trucking. “There’s gonna be a lot of stuff needs haulin’,” he said, “and I’m gonna help ‘em.”
It was the beginning, in a true sense, of his real life. He was born to drive a truck on the open road—a hard worker, a gambler, a fast talker, an adventurer with the eagle eyes and razor instincts and idiotic courage of a moonshine runner—and over the next 20 years he was to become something of a legend in that grim outback underworld of truck stops and loading docks and ICC checkpoints and cut-rate gas stations. Having a mountaineer’s inbred distrust of big companies and organized labor, preferring to make or break on his own merits, he set himself up as a “lease operator.” This meant he was a hired gun, a freelance trucker not on salary but on commission. The company, thus free of responsibility, couldn’t care less if he was overloaded or otherwise illegal in the eyes of the ICC; if he got caught, that was his problem. Just deliver the stuff by Tuesday morning.
You can see, then, how quickly my old man learned the location of every weight station on the continent, not to mention the sleeping habits and personal financial conditions of the men who ran them. He would stand there at the dock and tell them to fill ‘er up until she was bulging—with steel, tires, explosives, helmets, uniforms, whatever—and take off in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, like a bootlegger off on another run, twice as heavy as some states allowed but also twice as hungry. He knew every road in America by heart, and where to find the good coffee and the cheap gas, and how to make a gentleman’s arrangement at a truck stop in regard to somewhat clandestine cargo; and it seemed to be about all a man had to know. By the time the war had blown over, he had paid cash for a three-bedroom house and a ’46 Dodge automobile (“The 78th Dodge bought in Birmingham after the war”), started taking us on summer vacations to Florida and hired a driver to run a second rig. Those were the days of unblinking idolatry: that glorious time of puberty when I tried to wear my cap like his, and affected his hillbilly twang, and wondered what it took to be able to smoke and chew a cigar at the same time, and marveled at his ability to back a heaving trailer into the tightest hole. On summer evenings, at dusk, there was the great excitement of stuffing fresh socks and underwear into a bag and waiting impatiently for him to announce it was time to be going. “Now, Paul, I don’t want him growing up to be a truck driver,” my mother would say. “It’s good enough for me,” he would snap, “and I notice you ain’t starving.”
And a large part of growing up would begin to take place as we hit the open road, father and son, discovering the world and discovering each other together. Sleeping all day in the simmering Southern heat and riding all night to the songs of the whistling tires and the all-night country radio stations (“Ol’ Ernest Tubb sings like a bulldog, don’t he?”). Seeing the big tankers parked at the Mobile docks, the traffic in Atlanta, the tarpaper shacks in Mississippi, the cattle in Texas and the mist along the Blue Ridge. The truck stops at 3 o’clock in the morning, with bug-eyed truckers so high on bennies they couldn’t feed the pinball machines fast enough. “Your boy there looks just like you, Paul,” and, in response, “Well, the kid can’t help it.” Donora, Pennsylvania, where Stan Musial was raised. Nashville, where the Opry was. Pittsburgh, where the Pirates played. Blowing past a Greyhound on a straightaway, walking around a curve to see if the scales were open, standing on the running board to relieve ourselves while crawling up the Smokies, the jouncing of the cab and the pinup overhead bringing a curious new sensation to the groin. The mysterious hand signals exchanged with passing truckers, the wrecks and near-wrecks, the Cardinals game from St. Louis broadcast by Harry Caray, the black laborers begging to help unload at the docks at New Orleans. “Naw, ain’t got but a partial load o’ tires on,” to the ICC inspector and, a quarter-mile down the road, grabbing another gear, “Them boys just don’t take their work serious enough.” We had that to hold us together, and baseball—more than once we stood through Sunday doubleheaders to watch the Birmingham Barons play, then rushed home to work on my fielding until dark—and it seemed like a dream that would never end.
The breaking away began, of course, with that confusing night when I found him with his defenses down. W e didn’thave the trips together or the baseball any more—l had been jolted awake to the fact that I would never make it to the major leagues when I lasted only five days m spring training with a pathetic Class D club—and now I was cutting the umbilical, going off to college. In the college atmosphere, lost in a crowd of people whose fathers were doctors and architects and owners of legitimate businesses, I began to develop the notion that my old man was somebody to be ashamed of. It struck me for the first time that there had never been a book around our house, that my old man’s English was atrocious and that his business associates tended to be unlettered itinerants spending their dim lives driving other people’s trucks from one warehouse to another. I painfully learned that he, being a man of instinct rather than intellect, had been incapable of instructing me in any of the social graces now facing me, including sex. It occurred to me that while my friends were being staked to automobiles and off-campus apartments and fraternity initiation fees, I was having to serve up chow in a series of dining halls and work at summer jobs simply to stay in school. This was, remember, the 1950s, when we of the Silent Generation were in college for girls, football, parties and secure positions with big companies. Now my old man was no longer a character or a folk hero or even a champion to me; he was, as we say, tacky.
Which is not to say I had not been reminded of this before. He had always been the maverick in that great sprawling body on my mother’s side referred to as The Family. One uncle sold insurance. Another was a career man with Internal Revenue. Another was a mechanic. The other uncle was, the best I could determine, a freelance inventor; but then, his wife hadn’t let him out in years. It was a huge family, one that had in the early years knelt at the feet of my maternal grandfather—an imposing white-haired patriarch who reminded me of John L. Lewis and was respectfully called “Daddy Nelson”—and my old man had set the ground rules very soon after his marriage into The Family by refusing to cater to “the old man,” as he doggedly called him. His irreverence on that score, and on dozens of others, had made him an outcast, a role he seemed to relish. He drank. He didn’t believe in church. He talked loud and told blue jokes. He stated that the inventor had more brains than anybody in the bunch, he implied that being a deacon in the church was as good a way as any to sell insurance policies, and he was unable to fulfill his duties as a pallbearer at one relative’s funeral when he warmed up to the task with a few snorts of bourbon on an empty stomach. He worked with his hands, often outside the law, and to a group bent on attaining respectability—garden clubs, Sunday school, college, newer cars and bigger houses—he was, more often than not, a pain in the ass.
Meantime, I had finished school, gotten married, begun to write sports and to understand that I hadn’t seen much of the world at all. I had hitchhiked around a lot in pursuit of baseball clubs needing second basemen and I had covered a lot of miles in a truck with my old man, but it had been like running in place. After spending a year in France with an Air National Guard unit during John Kennedy’s “Berlin Crisis,” a year of enforced leisure in which I introduced myself to literature and found that a lot had happened in the world in 1946 besides the Cardinals’ winning of the World Series, I returned knowing that I had to do two things: quit writing about games, and get the hell out of Birmingham. By 1965 I found myself a daily columnist on The Atlanta Journal, featured prominently on the second page and free to write about anything—politics, Vietnam, sports, strippers—a sort of Jimmy Breslin, Dixie branch. But the real issue then was, of course, civil rights, and I found I was poorly equipped to handle it. I didn’t have the education or experience or, most important of all, the personal association with black people.
I had been raised by a Negro maid named Louvenia, never thinking to ask why she took her lunch on the back porch, and had grown up throwing rocks and jeering at a lanky fellow known as Nigger Charles as he ran from school to the shantytown that sat on a pile of scarred red dirt beyond our shaded neighborhood in Birmingham. My old man had always said they were shiftless and smelled bad and were not to be associated with, but the only opportunity I had to investigate that was when I played semipro baseball in Kansas with a dusky little local outfielder named Hank Scott; he turned out to be energetic, bright, deodorized and, to my astonishment, more of a soul brother to me than some of the white teammates from places like Chicago and St. Louis.
No, Louvenia and Nigger Charles and Hank Scott represented the only connections I had in what they were beginning to call the black community, unless you want to throw in the swarthy laborers who had always met my old man at the docks to help unload, and I had some homework to do. Not that I was alone in the South. Maybe the kids who grew up on a farm where there was nobody else to play ball with except the sharecroppers sons had prior relationships with the Negro, but most of my friends had never faced anything like that. We had blindly accepted the proposition that Negroes were inferior and should therefore be kept in their place—the back of the bus, the balcony of the theater, the “nigger bleachers” at the ballpark, and in their own churches and schools and restaurants—and now we had to make a decision: fight desegregation or work for it.
I must say that my old man made it easy for me. During the time I was living under his roof he had seldom felt it necessary to comment on the balance of the races, but the sight of those uppity folks actually demanding service in white Southern restaurants during the early 1960s drove him into a frenzy. This wasn’t my old man. It was somebody else. An autographed 8 x 10 of George Wallace showed up on the family piano. He quit hiring blacks to help him unload—at his age rolling into his trailer tires that sometimes weighed 500 pounds. He applauded the Birmingham Barons’ decision to drop out of the Southern Association rather than play integrated baseball. He talked about reactivating his father’s old squirrel rifle, which hadn’t been fired in at least 40 years. He discussed moving out of the old neighborhood. Once, on a visit with me when I was temporarily separated from my wife, he raved on and on about Communists and niggers and Catholics and Jews without addressing himself to my anguish. A trip to visit the folks in Birmingham invariably developed into an incredible one-way conversation: “This old boy out in Texas was telling me all about Jackie and those Secret Service agents . . . That’s all right, I know old Rastus McGill won’t let y’all say anything when you get out of Atlanta, but everybody knows he’s getting paid by Moscow . . . You talkin’ ’bout Martin Luther Coon? . . . Now that Strom Thurmond, that’s a man for you . . .” Ralph McGill paid from Moscow? Jackie Kennedy pleasuring the Secret Service? I mean, there are times when it doesn’t take an expert to sort out the truth. I became a liberal, through the back door.
During the last of the 1960s, then, our relationship, what there was left of it, caved in from what should have been peripheral pressures. He became just as convinced I was a freaky Communist as I was certain he was the last of the great racists, and one thing I did that I regret was to say it in my column. Not because I consider it an especially cheap shot to talk about your father like that in print or because it might have disturbed him, but because it made him polarize even further. Funny things were happening in The Family. After being bombarded by Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King and church bombers and police dogs, it seemed as though everybody in Birmingham was preparing to give the world 24 hours to get out of town. There had been a time when my old man’s audacious verbosity made him tacky, but now The Family was rallying around him as though he were some kind of proletarian prophet. “Well, now, Paul was telling me he heard over in Louisiana the other day how the nigras are being paid, yes paid, to, ah, go looking for young white girls and, ah . . . ,” said with some authority because my old man was, after all, as everybody knew, the one in The Family who traveled a lot and talked to different people.
Birmingham became a nice place for me to stay away from, what with one cousin being promoted to an executive position with the John Birch Society and my sister’s husband building a house on an elevated cul-de-sac and actually saying, if I remember correctly, that he would be.better able to “get a bead on ‘em when they start coming. Jesus. How the hell do you talk with them, reason with them,when their nostrils are flaring and their mouths are clucking while we all sit around the color television watching Daley’s cops riot in Chicago at the convention?Communists, everyone of ‘em. Enraged: Hell, they’re just kids. Calmly, smugly: Prove they ain’t Communists, then maybe I’ll believe it. Somebody, help.
“. . . never even a book in our house when I was growing up, and Auburn was better known then for its football players .and engineers than for its writers and thinkers. So I feel, in a sense, the Nieman program was made for somebody like me. I feel I can come to a better understanding of the South and people like my father by spending a year away from it all, in the academic atmosphere of Harvard . . .”
Each year a dozen newspapermen from all over the country are selected as Nieman Fellows, to spend a school year doing whatever they want to do at Harvard: reading, attending lectures, sleeping, drinking. The year is intended to put a spit-shine on promising young journalists, and it can be a good year if you handle it right. I mean, you don’t have to lift a finger for a whole year. At the suggestion of Dan Wakefield, the writer, who had been a Nieman once, I started filling out applications in the spring of 1968. I had the vague notion that maybe a year away from the South and The Family would help me put some things into perspective—”Give ‘em some of that poor-Southern-boy stuff and you’re in,” I was advised—but mainly I was running from the writing of six 1,000-word columns a week. I mentioned the possibility of a year at Harvard to my old man once, and all I got was a knowing smile. Then a wire came, saying I had been one of those picked, and I called Birmingham with the great news. “Mama, I won that fellowship,” I yelled over the phone. ‘What school did you say that was?” she replied. “Harvard, Mama.” In the background I could hear my old man’s response, and it didn’t take much imagination to guess what he might be saying. Went ahead and joined the damned Party, didn’t he? As far as he knew, the Nieman Fellows was an organization of Communist fags.
The joke was, as it turned out, on both of us. The atmosphere at Harvard was so academic it was overwhelming, eventually sending me into a shell I was unable to come out of. Among my fellow Niemans were two Moscow correspondents, a former Pulitzer reporter and a fellow who had once run errands for Scotty Reston at The New York Times. While many of the others had been fighting in the trenches of the civil rights push five years earlier, I had been picking up ten bucks a game as official scorer for the Augusta Yankees of the Class AA Sally League. Talk about your cultural shock. I was pretty good at drinking beer at Cronin’s, but when they broke out the sherry at the Faculty Club and Galbraith started in on the industrial state I began getting a headache.
But there was more. It dawned on me, after too many boring cocktail parties with too many terribly proper New Englanders, that what I was really missing at Harvard was the sweaty passion for life I had always taken for granted while growing up in the South. There was a superficiality, a sterility, in Cambridge—even among most of the Southern kids I met, who were, after all, from a different South than I—which was neatly packaged for me by a lady at one of those parties who told me, straining to be sympathetic, that she had been to the South and found it to be not nearly as bad as everybody thought: she and her husband had spent the night in Atlanta on the way to Miami Beach, and found the South to be altogether delightful. So I was able to develop a handy catch-all theory about life: that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who live life and those who ponder it. And I learned that a good way to break the routine at the parties was to get off in a corner and regale them with highly embellished stories about my old man and Junior Johnson and Roy Acuff—How quaint. Tell us about Johnny Cash’s years in prison—and the time to go back home didn’t come soon enough. The year at Harvard was the most profitable year I ever spent, for the wrong reasons.
Going back, then, I had a new frame of reference within which to view my old man. I had taken some 15 years to finally accept him for what he was—to discover why he wasn’t perfect and then to determine how he made up for not being perfect. I knew, now, that I had to overlook his racial hangups—we would just have to ride that one out, It being too late for him to be changed—and search for the larger truths he had left me: an involvement with and a passion for life, a willingness to take on the world If necessary, the courage to endure. That’s the word—endure—a word not so fashionable as it once was. Instead of bending or running when the blows came pouring down on his head—his wife harping on security and respectability, his children acting ashamed of him, the unions killing his way of life—he stood and fought and, if forced to retreat, was still standing there, bloody, throwing rocks and cussing, when they found him. About all a man should be asked to do, when it comes to raising sons, is somehow to see that there is a slight improvement in the species. It’s a hell of a burden.
He is 62 now, and those riotous days and nights of scrambling on the open road are faint memories. In the mid-1950s he chose to make it on his own rather than join a union or go with a big company, and by 1961 the unions were so strong that it was all over for the independent. Today he does some driving and bidding and odd jobs—”nigger work,” he calls it—for a Syrian in Birmingham who owns a surplus tire company, lives in an $80,000 house and can’t begin to understand what makes my old man tick. He and, my mother live serenely in a comfortable brick house where there is an expensive organ for him to play, as well as a piano; they have plenty of friends their age, and they go to Florida several times a year to inspect the converted swampland they plan to retire to in two or three years. Not everything is right with him—his job is dull, and his wife makes more money working at the Social Security office than he ever made trucking—but he manages to keep up a facade.
Two weeks before the 30th anniversary of his entry into trucking, we took a trip together. A fellow in Louisville was selling out his tire business and my old man was going up to take the rest of the tires off his hands. On a Saturday afternoon we left in a pitiful faded red truck—no fuel gauge, leaky heater, bad brakes, no radio, dusty lopsided trailer behind—and for a while, chugging up the trough into Middle Tennessee, both of us were trying to pretend it was the same. “Call that Jew Overdrive,” he cracked, cutting the engine to coast down a hill. We stopped off to watch the Opry from backstage—”Sure wish that pretty Jean Shepard ['A Dear John Letter'] was here”—before plugging on toward Louisville. From eight in the morning until two. Sunday afternoon he loaded huge surplus aircraft tires into the trailer, in the rain, with the help of a couple of white boys and an aging Negro named Clem Miller (“Yessuh, yo’ Daddy can go almost as hard as I can”), and after some sleep at a cheap motel across the river in Indiana we got up around two o’clock in the morning and headed back.
It wasn’t really the same anymore. All I had to do was look at the truck he was driving, to observe the meaningless work he was doing, to see that. I noticed, when we stopped for breakfast at an obscure roadside diner, that he had trouble reading the menu. But we tried, passing a bottle of Scotch back and forth, laughing at the stories, creaking through Nashville as the streets jammed with Monday morning traffic: “Yeah, that time there was this fellow just handed me $150 cash up in Delaware and told me where to deliver these aircraft parts in Atlanta. Saved him some money, made me some . . . At least two and a half million miles without an accident chargeable to me . . . Hell, if you’re driving a Greyhound they can fire you just because some little old lady didn’t like your looks . . . I was representing all 82 of the drivers at Alabama Highway, see, and when I told this union organizer we didn’t want to join up, he just looked at me real cold and said, ‘Well, we can’t be responsible,’ and I said, ‘For what?’ and he said, ‘If you get a brick through your windshield somewhere.’” And about the time the ICC almost nailed him in California, where he had some unpaid fines hanging: “Didn’t want ‘em to know my name, so I told ‘em I didn’t even have a license, was just helping out my buddy there who had passed out in the truck after drinking all night. ‘Yeah, I’m from Tennessee, just came along to see California, can’t get back home fast enough,’ I told ‘em. Never bothered to look in the truck. Think he just got tired of hearin’ me talk.” And disgust for the new breed of trucker: “Some of ‘em been to college. Got credit cards now, company rigs, and if they break down they just call collect and have ‘em send somebody out to fix it.”
We got back into Birmingham in the afternoon, dropped off the load of old tires and went by the house. While we waited for my mother to come home from work, we sat alone in the cool, darkened living room that I have never known and he sipped a beer and entertained me at the organ. Mama’s taking lessons,” he said, “and I just watch and do what she does. Teacher says he’s gonna start chargin’ double. Then I said something about how it sure wasn’t like it used to be, his work and his life, not knowing how he would take it, and he quit playing and slowly turned around on the bench . . . “If something was to happen to your mother, I’d be back out on the road in a minute,” he said. “There’s days I’ll be sitting on the yard downtown, nothing to do but drink bourbon and chase it with a six-pack, and out on the expressway I’ll hear some old boy in a rig whistle and get another gear, and it gets to me. Hell, yes, I miss it. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. Tell your boy, David, he better hurry if he wants to ride with me.”
The late Paul Hemphill was often called the Jimmy Breslin of the South but that doesn’t do him justice. He wasn’t just a brilliant columnist. His first book, “The Nashville Sound” remains one of the great books ever written about country music. And his baseball novel, “Long Gone,”later made into a fun and now over-looked movie (it was shown on HBO the year before “Bull Durham” came out), is a treat. Do yourself a favor and read Hemphill’s classic piece,“Quitting the Paper,” and then pick up one of his collections. This story comes from “The Good Old Boys” and is reprinted here with permission from Hemphill’s wife, Susan Percy.