My father was born on June 28th, 1926, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, only a week after the summer solstice, in the longest days of the year, when the sun doesn’t set until close to ten o’clock P.M. Maybe that had something to do with his deliberate nature. I choose the word deliberate rather than methodical, because methodical implies a certain precision, an attention to detail, that was never a part of my dad. Dad just never seemed to be in a hurry, that’s all.
For the last thirty to thirty five years of his working life, my dad was an “over the road” truck driver, which has to be the worst job description ever. What other kind of truck drivers are there? “Under the road?” An “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” truck driver? Calling somebody an “over the road truck driver” is like calling someone an “in an office accountant” or a “through the sky” jet pilot. So to clarify, my dad drove the big rigs, eighteen wheelers, semi-trucks, over the long haul.
For most of those thirty-odd years, he drove by night, the last sixteen years from the Central Wisconsin terminal in Milwaukee to various Midwest destinations, from Saint Paul to various locations in Indiana and Ohio. He’d leave on a Monday night, return home on Wednesday morning, and sleep the day away behind closed shades and a shut bedroom door. At 5:30, one of us would gently wake him for supper, which was eaten in the presence of Walter Cronkite on a little portable black and white television. At some point while the meal was still being consumed, the phone would ring and my dad would turn the volume of the television down before he’d pick up the receiver and say, “French Embassy, DeGaulle speaking.” The CW dispatcher was on the other end, calling to tell him where he was driving to that night, and what time he had to leave. Then, after we finished supper, he’d go back to bed for a couple of hours before getting up and going to work. For a while, when I was in junior high or so, I’d always walk him to the door, and see him off, saying in an overly slow and melodramatically sad voice, “Bye, dear old dad. Hate to see you go.”
“Hate to go,” he’d reply in his own fake voice, always forcing a sniffle to heighten the melodrama. It was just a stupid little thing the two of us did, and we both got a kick out of it, although even then I recognized that there was an element of truth to it. On some level, I really did hate to see him go.
Looking back on it now, I’m aware of what I had no clue of while I was growing up: that it had to be an incredibly difficult life, and how strange it had to be for all of those years for my dad to be more familiar with the lonely landscape of the night, of the glow of headlights that would illuminate the dashed lines that his big rig would consume and swallow, than the brightly lit daylight that the drawn shades on his bedroom and motel windows strained to keep out. So much for being born a week after the summer solstice.
It’s a testament to the strength of my mom and dad and their marriage that they raised four children (that they somehow found the time to conceive four children is impressive enough) and provided a stable and healthy and happy environment. And to be clear, that was mostly thanks to my mom. She always put her children first, and always made sure that my dad stayed involved in our lives. These were no minor accomplishments, especially when compared to the train wrecks that most other families of “over the road” drivers became. My mom and dad were married for more than forty years, until mom’s death in 1994. There were no periods of my dad being kicked out of the house, or moving in with a younger woman, or my mom taking him back, or step or half brothers and sisters. These things were the messy norm in most of the families of my dad’s co-workers.
The soundtrack to almost all of my memories of my mom and dad together is the music of their laughter. Both had finely tuned and complimentary senses of humor and a deep appreciation of the absurd. They both had the ability to get on each other’s last nerve, and both could be compelled to exercise this talent from time to time, but these times were rare. Most of the time, they set an extraordinary example of the way a couple should treat one another – with simple and sincere respect.
Dad died in August of 2011, nearly five years ago now. We were, at the time of his death, very close, just like we’d always been. I’d started writing a couple of years previously, and I had the opportunity to share with him an essay I wrote describing what he meant to me (read it here: https://djgourdoux.com/2011/06/18/dad/) . He liked it, telling me it was “excellent.” It was an opportunity I didn’t have with my Mom and especially my oldest brother, Mike, who died without my being able to tell how much I looked up to and loved him. I miss all three of them.
I’m not big on religion, and I don’t put too much stock in an afterlife, in either a Heaven or a Hell. I think we live on in the traces we leave on the landscape through the work we busy our hands and minds with and the love we feel with our hearts and souls. These things change the world in minute but profound and permanent ways, and connections between our existence and the waking and working world are maintained long after we’re forgotten, like the impressions of eighteen wheels left in the asphalt of an interstate highway on a warm and black summer night.