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Last of the Over-The-Road Men

This one for a good friend who lived this life for a while.  Mr. Cohen has some wistful dreams, but I do wonder how many miles, and days, he actually spent in the seat he dreams about.
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WSJ 2/10/2018 BY RICH COHEN

THE REPORT was supposed to reassure those worried about the fate of the American trucker. Last week, Uber Advanced Technologies Group explained to the world that the coming gizmos, such as Uber’s giant cargo automatons (driverless semis), won’t wipe out real truckers but will, in fact, give them better work/life balance. After all, someone will have to handle local transfers and deliveries for all the items carried cross-country by the sleepless trucking machines. And just think how great it will be for the drivers, liberated from those endless cannonball runs.

It’s enough to make me weep.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to drive a truck—not just any kind of truck, not a mail truck, not a septic truck, not a tool-filled, open-backed landscaping truck that rattles over suburban root buckles and certainly not an Uber delivery truck. I wanted to be mounted high on a big rig—a smoke-spewing, hornblasting 18-wheeled monster with a western sunset airbrushed on the side, the cabin roof lined with orange warning lights that glow on the evening interstate. Growing up in the Midwest in the ’70s, I’d gaze at those rigs on family road trips, imagining the wanton lives of nomadic truckers, the pleasures of the highway, back roads and sleepy diners, a life as free as life in the saddle must have been before the frontier closed.

Truck drivers were everywhere in pop culture, celebrated as cowboys and renegades. I can still hear those big-rig ballads: “East Bound and Down,” “Truck Drivin’ Man,” “Diesel Driving Daddy.” They were paired with a library of epic films: “Smokey and the Bandit,” in which Jackie Gleason chases Burt Reynolds all over the Confederacy; “Every Which Way But Loose,” with a bare-chested Clint Eastwood and his simian sidekick; Sam Peckinpah’s “Convoy,” adapted from the C.W. Mc-Call and Chip Davis song “Convoy” (“’Bout a mile outta Shaky Town/ I says, ‘Pig Pen, this here’s the Rubber Duck/ And I’m about to put the hammer down’ ”). Kris Kistofferson, who plays the Rubber Duck, sums up the ethos: “The purpose of the convoy is to keep moving.” Bobtailing, dead-heading, code talking with handles on CB radios, outrunning Smokey, cursing the bunny hoppers, flashing the flashers so another driver can “slip the Kojak with the Kodak”—these phrases, like the songs and the movies, formed the dreamscape of the nation when I was a boy.

In a world filled with commuters and compact cars, office drones and office jobs, the long-haul trucker seemed to be the last free man, all that remained of the rootless America that kept going till it ran out of road. When I was 10 or 12, there were several TV commercials for truck-driving schools. These ran midday, between reruns of “The Munsters” and “Hazel.” My favorite opened with shots of a Freightliner zooming through iconic American locales—Monument Valley, the Black Hills, the Salt Flats—as a narrator asked: “Do you dream of driving the big rigs?”

It filled me with images of wide-open landscapes, small towns where the brakes moan as the trucker descends from his cabin like a king descending from a throne, waitresses swarming him with hugs and coffee kisses. I was mesmerized by pictures I had seen of especially well-appointed rigs. The bedroom behind the driver’s cabin—a jewel box of domesticity, a hidden through-the-looking-glass world.

I read up on the best truck stops. The Dixie Truckers Home (now called the Dixie Travel Plaza), off Route 66 in McLean, Ill.—founded in 1928, the oldest truck stop in the world. The Bosselman Travel Center in Grand Isle, Neb., where trucks idled as drivers wandered the food court or visited the onsite chiropractor. R-Place in Morris, Ill., known for the Ethyl Burger—2 pounds of beef! The Iowa 80, the world’s largest truck stop. Laundry room? Check. Theater showing truck-themed movies? Check. Trucking museum featuring 60 vintage trucks, pumps from vintage gas stations and old-time road signs? Check. Stationed in my booth at a Howard Johnson’s, I’d watch a truck gear down to a ghostly crawl and wait to hear the hiss of air breaks. The door would swing open and out came a big rigger in denim and flannel, smiling as he crossed the apron. Those truckers looked the way a man was supposed to look—burly and mean, in CAT baseball caps, lips fat with Skoal, eyes glazed, the vacant stare of highway hypnosis, 1,000 miles behind, 1,000 still to go.

They did not say yes, but “affirmative.” They did not say “speeding ticket,” but “bear bite.” They called the speed limit a “double nickel.” A cop on a motorcycle was an “Evel Knievel.” Any place they’d left behind was in their back pocket. A female cop was a “lady bear.” A man who talked tough on the CB but wilted face to face was a “Rambo.” If you wanted another driver to accelerate, you said, “Stand on it, son.”

These drivers scared me—they were experi-enced in a way that I wanted to become. I en-vied them. I’d argue that it was the last time a blue-collar American workingman was thought to stand not only for us but for the best of us. The ’70s were the golden era for the trucker. From there, every step was down. He fell out of favor in the 1980s—goodbye to the working-class hero, so long to the proletarian ideal. After Ronald Reagan, it was all about money, about living in the best part of the best town—yup-pies climbing the ladder. Now, of course, most of those empty blue roads are lined with shopping malls, and we leave finding the best route to GPS, not to know-how gathered by long experience. The combus-tion engine, the great beating heart of truck cul-ture, has been turned from hero to villain—the great enemy of our warming planet. The self-driving truck, which those engineers at Uber and elsewhere are perfecting as we speak, might very well be the last nail in the coffin.

The trucker of my teenage dreams needed a frontier, a hinterland of unspoiled space, an authentic, less settled nation he could vanish into. Being a long-haul hero meant getting off the map, being free. But nowadays it’s no lon-ger possible to get off the map. Because there is only the map. The trucker went away like the trapper, the cowboy, the biplane pilot and the professional daredevil. But there must still be a free person out there, on some road that’s not yet been paved. I see him in my mind just before I fall asleep—in a big silver Freightliner, barreling down a lost highway, the dust rising in a great cloud behind.

Mr. Cohen’s most recent books are “The Chi-cago Cubs: Story of a Curse” and “The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones.”

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