The Big Truck Ride

by Carl L. Biemiller

Published in the April 1952 edition of Jack & Jill magazine (Curtis Publishing)

big rigs Copyright Carl L. Biemiller

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The side of the trailer truck was like a huge silver cliff. Looking at it, Joyce and Sandy could see the letters that said GROGAN TRUCKING COMPANY. At the same time the children could hear Mr. Grogan yelling at their father, who drove the truck. Father had a determined look on his face, and he was yelling back at Mr. Grogan.

Sandy and Joyce looked at each other. They grinned. It was a fine argument. It was all about them.

Now Mr. Grogan said, “Dan Thomas, it’s risky, taking a boy and girl to New York on one of my trucks. There could be an accident, or one of the children could get sick. You might break a leg yourself. Who would take care of the kids? And what would happen to my cargo?”

“I’ve explained why I have to take Joyce and Sandy with me,” answered Father. “Their mother isn’t supposed to leave the hospital for another four days. There isn’t anyone to mind them, and I won’t leave them home alone. The kids are going with me, or I can’t take your load to market.”

Joyce and Sandy knew what that meant. The Redlands part of Florida is good land where the farmers grow tomatoes and sweet tropical fruits—mangoes, papayas and avocados. Every year, tons and tons of tomatoes are picked green in the Redlands and shipped north to New York, Philadelphia and other cities of the East. The tomatoes ripen on the way, and in warehouses. When it is still cold in the north, people can’t grow their own vegetables. They are glad to buy garden produce which comes from the South.

All winter long, big trucks roar north from Florida. Trains loaded with fruits and vegetables pull out of the stations. Those crops mean money in the bank, clothes and food, for folks in the Redlands. Mr. Grogan depended upon men like Dan Thomas to get crops to market.

You wouldn’t think so now, to hear the weary sort of give-in tone of his voice. “All right, Dan,” he said. “But you know what happened on the road last week. Those hijackers haven’t been caught yet.”

Sandy and Joyce knew what that meant too. Children in the Florida flatlands know some things that children in other places don’t. Florida children sometimes work on farms when they are eight or ten years old. They drive tractors and pick tomatoes. Now and then they hear about hijackers who have stopped the trucks and have stolen the cargoes.

Joyce and Sandy could see, now, that their father looked worried, but after a minute his face softened. “Forget those hijackers,” he said to Mr. Grogan. “I’ll be careful. The kids can sleep in the cab bunks, and eat at the same places I do. Your tomatoes will get through, Grogan.”

Joyce and Sandy could tell that Mr. Grogan was still upset when he walked away, shaking his head. But Father was laughing. The worried look was gone. He looked at Joyce and Sandy and said, “Come on, you two. We’re taking off as soon as we visit Mother. She ought to be all better and home again by the time we get back from New York. Ordinarily, the neighbors would be glad to have you. But Mrs. Hine’s winter relations moved in yesterday, and she will be busy taking care of them and her own children. It’s enough to ask them to feed our dog.”

There were things to do before the children could visit Mother. Sandy had to take his dog to the neighbor’s house, and Joyce wanted to roll up the sleeping bags so that they would stow nicely on the bunk beds in the cab of the tractor. Father had to find the sheepskin coats that Mother had bought a year ago when they visited friends in North Carolina.

The children packed fresh dungarees and shirts and socks and combs and toothbrushes. Father explained to Joyce that a dress would not be necessary this time. He said that going to New York was not a visit-visit. They would just be taking care of tomatoes for a few days. “You kids can even be a mite dirtier than usual,” grinned Father. “I’ll scrub you when we stop to eat, and get you a bath or two in some tourist courts or when I stop for oil.”

They thought that they had everything when they left the house, but at the hospital, Mother told them differently. She sat up in bed, a bit pale, but otherwise exactly Mother and scolded them for forgetting wash cloths and towels and soap. “I’ll be home when you get back,” she said. “Have a nice time. Don’t try to live on soda pop and hot dogs.” Then she laughed and kissed them all soundly. Soon after that the three Thomases trooped down the hospital corridor, into Father’s rattly car and down the road to the Grogan Trucking Company. It was early evening that same day when Father steered the loaded truck-trailer on to U. S. Highway Number 1, a long road north which runs from Florida to Maine. It was snug in the cab. There were lights on the dashboard which showed how much oil there was for the purring diesel engine, and how hot the motor was running, and whether there was enough air pressure for the brakes, which could halt the truck all in one shuddering stop if necessary.

The headlights of the truck probed out along the road in front of them, peeking into the palmetto scrub and the pines. “We like to drive at night,” explained Father. “There isn’t as much traffic then, and we can hold a steadier pace.”

“When do you sleep?” asked Joyce.

“Truck drivers on long runs usually travel in pairs,” said Father. “One man drives while another sleeps. But when we go alone, we cat nap a lot. Sometimes we just pull off the road and sleep for a while. But this isn’t a real fast run. Mr. Grogan figured an extra day for us.”

They stopped some ten miles past Miami, and the red neon lights on the roadside restaurant made it look like a shining island in the night. There were two other trucks out in the parking lot. Father swung his rig beside them. “Time out for chow,” he said.

They sat at a long counter inside, and a smiling waitress came up and said, “Hello, Dan. Got the family out for a drive?”

Father laughed. “Sure have. All the way north.” Then he added, “How about a couple of steaks? With grits, gravy and salad? Plenty of milk too….”

While the children were eating, Father walked down to the end of the long counter. He talked to three other men there. His face was serious. He nodded from time to time. Sandy had seen one of the men before. He was another truck driver for Mr. Grogan. Father came back and finished his meal.

When they had finished eating, Father paid the waitress. As the children turned toward the door, Joyce heard her say, “Be careful, Dan. You heard what the boys said.”

Father grunted. “We’ll be all right. Hijackers aren’t after any tomatoes. They’re looking for ‘gator skins, maybe, or Miami merchandise…stuff they can dispose of fast.”

“How will they know what you’re driving? Somebody may tell them when a valuable load goes north, but all trucks look alike at night.”

Father shrugged his shoulders. “So long,” he said pleasantly, and followed the children out to the truck.

The bunk behind the driver’s seat was generous in size. There was room enough for a grown man to roll about if he had to, and the ledge of the seat-back was there to prevent falling out. There was plenty of room for Sandy and Joyce. Father had two rubber mattresses, and the two sleeping bags fitted over them exactly.

Joyce made up the beds. Then she and Sandy climbed into the cab with Father. “You kids can ride another half hour or so with me,” he said. “You’ll be real sleepy by then.”

It was nice riding. The big motor droned, but inside, the cabin stayed comparatively quiet. Father showed the two children how to work the lights on the dashboard. He said that real truck drivers belong to a sort of gang, along with bus drivers and the other men who handle commercial trucks. They had a code. If a bus or a truck broke down, other drivers would stop to help. They used their lights at night to send messages. One flash meant “Look out, there are cops around.” That meant to watch speed limits and road rules carefully, and to watch out for local signs. Two flashes meant “Everything’s okay.” Three meant “Stop to talk.” Sandy and Joyce memorized the light code. Father said he would get little flashlights for them when they got home again, so they could practice.

He also showed them the air-horn. When you pressed a button on the steering wheel it made a bleating sound that rattled your eardrums. “We don’t use these air-horns very often,” grinned Father. “Just once in a while. When we really lean on the air-horn, it’s an emergency.”

North of Fort Lauderdale, Father stopped again. He pulled the big truck into the courtyard of a tourist camp. “I know the man who owns this place,” said Father, “And it’s time to get you ready for bed.”

The man was tall and sunburned. He talked to Father and then showed the children to his own cabin, a real little house behind the office. “You’ll find plenty of towels, soap and tooth paste,” he said.

When they were as clean as they could get, Father came into the bathroom and made them cleaner. Then he took them out to the truck and tucked them in.

Father waved to the man, and then they were off again. The sound of the motor was like a noise down deep in a well, and the sweet warm air of Florida poured through the open window at Father’s seat. The tiny lights in the cab were dim.

The children slept. They slept while towns along the Ocean Highway moved behind them in the night. Vero Beach, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, and then across the boundary line into the state of Georgia.

They were near Waycross, Georgia, when Father awakened Joyce and Sandy. “New day, new day!” he shouted. “Up and see the road.”

The truck was parked at a big service station and restaurant. Joyce slid out of the bunk to the seat of the cab, and Sandy followed her. They put on shoes and T-shirts because they had slept in most of their clothes. They followed Father into the restaurant, washed their faces in a washroom at the back of the place, and ate.

Father went outside to talk to some men, then he came back to the children. “Listen,” he said. “How would you kids like to amuse yourselves for an hour or so while I catch a nap? Just play around the place and keep out of people’s way? Then we’ll move on.”

“That’ll be fun,” said Joyce.

“Sure it will,” said Sandy.

While Father dozed in the truck, Sandy and Joyce watched cars. They made a game of counting state licenses. They saw folks with babies. They saw smiling people and stern-looking people. One of the stern ones asked Joyce and Sandy what they were doing hanging around. When they told her, she said, “Humph! A fine way to raise children.”

Joyce met a state trooper, one of the policemen who rode the highways. He too asked where they were going, but he smiled when Joyce told him, and said she’d make a fine truck driver when she grew up.

The trooper was so friendly that Sandy said to him, “May I hold your pistol?”

The policeman unbuttoned the flap of his holster and let Sandy feel the handle of his gun. “I wouldn’t let many people do that,” he told Sandy.

When Father awakened they all piled into the big rig and roared off.

All that day the truck rolled, through Atlanta, the capital of Georgia, and into South Carolina. They stopped from time to time and ate. Each time they made a stop, Sandy and Joyce noticed that the air was colder when they left the cab. Father said that it was time to dig out their coats.

They rode through the town of Cheraw and across the border into North Carolina.

They ate again just outside of Aberdeen. They each had a big, steaming bowl of stew with lots of carrots and pieces of meat. They had milk and ice cream. It had been dark when they stopped. The night was full of fat stars when they walked out to the truck again. Father said he was going to sleep a while too, on the seat of the cab. He tucked them into the bunks and heard their prayers. Sandy, as usual, stated his prayers by saying a table grace before he remembered “Now I lay me.” Joyce thought that the sleeping bag felt warmer, cozier than ever tonight.

The children didn’t hear the diesel roar into action two hours later, as Dan Thomas gunned the motor and eased the big rig off the shoulder of the road into the highway lane. The truck rolled. It swooped up the Carolina hills, around the bends, down the hollows. It made a small thunder in the quiet of the night. The headlights seemed to be two bright reins pulling the truck behind them.

Then about thirty miles from Raleigh, something happened. The sound of hissing air and the squeal of the big breaks startled the children out of their sleep as if someone had shaken them. The truck itself was shaking to a stop, right on the highway. Father’s face turned to them suddenly. His voice was firm and somehow urgent. Joyce and Sandy knew that what he said he meant very much. “Keep your heads down,” he snapped. “Don’t move. This is trouble.”

“Hijackers?” said Sandy.

“Shut up and stay down,” said Father.

They huddled. Out of sight and behind the back of the cab.

There were rough voices outside, on the highway. One of them was hoarse. “Get out of that cab with your hands up!” it commanded. “Cut that motor first.”

“You don’t want this load,” replied Father’s voice steadily.

“Out here, and make it fast,” said the voice, and then yelled to someone near the back of the truck, “Break that lock.”

“I’m carrying a load of tomatoes,” Father said insistently.

Now the sounds grew fainter. The men were taking Father to the back of the rig. The children whispered to each other. “I’m afraid,” said Joyce.

“So am I,” whispered Sandy. “What’ll we do?”

“I’m going to peak,” said Joyce. She raised her head above the ledge of the cab seat. Then she grabbed Sandy’s shoulder. “Look!” she said.

Sandy sat up too, and stared through the windshield. Far out across the hollow, and away down the road, there were headlights, and over the headlights a row of red lights that showed a truck was coming.

“Remember what Father told us about the light signals?” whispered Joyce. “Maybe we could do it while those men have Father? Shall I try?”

Sandy’s lip trembled. “Yes,” he said.

The children edged toward the big steering wheel. Fortunately their heads barely came as high as the bottom of the windows. Anyone taking a casual glance at the cab would not have noticed them while looking up from the roadway. The headlights in the distance came closer. Sandy reached out to the switch on the dash. Blink once—blink twice—blink three times. That meant “stop to talk.” Blink once, blink twice, blink three times.

There was a surprised yell from the rear of the truck. There were running footsteps. Angry cries. And suddenly the door of the cab was yanked open. The hoarse voice sounded loud and ugly. “What’s going on here? Kids! I’ll fix you….” At the same moment the man’s arm reached for Joyce’s shoulder. Sandy grabbed the button of the big air-horn. The shuddering blare tore the stillness of the night into shreds.

Then the headlights of the oncoming truck poured light over the figures of running men, and a car shot away in flight from Grogan’s truck. The on-coming truck stopped and men spilled from it.

There was Father reaching for the children. He hugged them and hugged them. Finally he turned to the other truckers and told his story. “They were hijackers. They wouldn’t believe that I was lugging tomatoes. They made me stand back there while they pried at the lock. They held a gun on me. I can describe them too. For a minute I was worried for fear those guys might do something desperate. But how about the kids? They really saved the day.”

“You’re so right,” said one of the men from the other truck. “I caught their signal and was slowing to stop when that air-horn went off. I’d have gone right by while they held you if I hadn’t seen the light signals. You’ve got two smart children, mister.”

Father was grateful to the truckers. He couldn’t thank them enough. Finally he said, “You report to the police in Aberdeen, and I’ll tell the cops at Raleigh as soon as I get in. Maybe they can nab those hijackers.

Joyce and Sandy were so excited that they thought they’d never sleep again. But as the big truck pulled into Raleigh they were both back in the bunk. They never knew it when Father parked the rig. They never knew that he stopped at the police station or that he sent a telegram to Mr. Grogan back home.

On the road north, the cities spun by, each with its special magic: Henderson, Richmond, Fredericksburg, Washington. Then Baltimore, New Castle and the bridge across the Delaware River. New Jersey was as flat as their own Florida, and the new turnpike streamed north to the wonder of Manhattan.

They came into New York at twilight, with the tall buildings aglow and the spires lifting into the darkening sky. For some reason that Joyce didn’t understand, there was a lump in her throat, and Sandy’s eyes grew wider and ever wider until his face lighted like the windows of the great city.

They were 1500 miles from home, at the end of a thrilling adventure. But the best of it was yet to be, for Mr. Grogan was waiting for them at the market terminal where Father took the truck. And, wonders of wonders, Mother was with him. Mother out of the hospital!

Mr. Grogan shook hands with Father. “Got the next flight out after your wire. The doctors thought the trip wouldn’t do your missus any harm. We both wanted to see the kids and tell them that the police caught the hijackers. One state trooper told me to tell Joyce and Sandy that he knows them and is waiting to see them again.”
Jack & Jill Magazine's first editor and Carl L.'s mentor was Ada Campbell Rose
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