I consider myself environmentally aware (notice I didn’t say woke). I really do. Global warming is upon us, with science proving it as an existential threat to the planet. And although I want to shrink my carbon footprint, I find the impulse collides with one of the most cherished items on my wish list (notice I didn’t write bucket), one that’s vital to commerce but fuel-guzzling, noise and air polluting, and completely at odds with Jewish values respecting the land and conserving natural resources.
You’ll excuse me if I seem to be going in two directions at once.
My first sentence sounds like a tree-hugging exercise while the second pretty much puts me in the hip pocket of the petroleum industry. And I share this contradiction with millions of others caught between the conflicting forces of wanting to counteract climate change while desperately needing their vehicles for work, medical appointments, grocery shopping, or soccer pickup.
My wish list doesn’t contain ziplines, skydiving, mountain expeditions or photo safaris. No trips to Vegas, Machu Picchu, Bangkok, or Beersheba. No ambitions to master French or to cook it. Destinations? Perhaps my wife and I can make it to the Highline, Broadway shows, and the 9/11 memorial in the city, if our health, the weather, and the pandemic cooperate. And we just booked a July trip to, of all places, Manitoba Province, Canada, because Gail, nice Jewish Jersey girl that she is, also is a rodeo aficionado who has long wanted to attend the Calgary Stampede. And beyond that, she is also (shudder) a bullfight fan.
After wrapping your heads around that, prepare for my guilty pleasure. It might sound pedestrian, but actually it’s vehicular. If it appears un-Jewish and totally lacking in Yiddishkeit, I ask your indulgence.
I would like to drive an 18-wheeler; you know, one of those road-hogging, full-throated behemoths that sound like the higher registers of an audiologist’s test or the lower scales of a Bruckner symphony, depending on the gear, the grade, and the speed of the moment. I won’t even attempt to elevate this wish or walk it back by saying I meant I wanted to head a trucking company or obtain a doctorate in intermodal logistics. No. I would like to drive an 18-wheeler.
This fascination (some might call it a fixation or even a mild affliction) has been with me since childhood. It’s no casual Johnny-come-lately impulse. Let’s say it began when I sat behind the wheel of my father’s prewar Plymouth, legs barely reaching the pedals, and pretend shifted, braked, and accelerated. I continued this practice as Dad purchased a 1950 Buick, and then a 1955 DeSoto (oh, those fins). During summers at Long Beach Island, between stretches of sun, surf, my lawn-mowing route, and bicycle jaunts, I would sit for extended periods in the rusted- and roached-out Ford Model A abandoned on a back lot, imagining the road passing beneath and the scenery unfolding alongside. When the family went for drives (with gas at 25 cents a gallon and Route 22 an adventure), I would pay special attention to the trucks, studying their lettering for point of origin and cargo, trying to glimpse the driver as we passed. Often he was a grizzled-looking guy in a cab hazy with cigarette smoke. Sometimes, just sometimes, I would get a wave from the knight of the road as he noticed my stare.
My truck-driving mystique grew exponentially when I spent time at my father’s drug manufacturing plant in Newark, located next to Asa Duckworth, a transport firm. Duckworth’s semi-trailers and straight jobs (notice the inside lingo) were mostly prewar Macks with, what else, a rather un-Donald-looking drake painted on the sides. The drivers would double-park their rigs and leave them for Shorty. That wasn’t his name, of course, but that’s what I called him as I viewed his craftsmanship from Dad’s open freight elevator. Built like a fireplug and always wearing a cap, Shorty would lean halfway out the cab and used the extended door mirrors to back the bulky vehicles through the tiny warehouse opening. He never missed on first try despite the tractor and trailer going at ridiculously V-shaped angles.
When the big day arrived for me to take my driver’s test, Mom, who didn’t get her license until she was in her mid-50s, had an accident on Route 46 as she drove to the motor vehicle station. Although both of us escaped injury, I was shaken enough to fail the exam. My parents had planned a dinner at Sardi’s in New York that night to celebrate. The gloom enveloped both me and my Caesar salad. But I passed the test on my next try, and Mom won her accident case with a bravura pro se performance in Little Falls Municipal Court.
After graduating West Orange High in 1960, instead of enrolling in a commercial driving school, I entered Rutgers, majored in journalism, and took a 45-year detour into newspapering. But there were brushes with trucks (of the non-accident sort) along the way. During my freshman and sophomore summers, I drove a 1948 Ford freezer unit out of Good Humor’s sprawling Newark garage. Of course, I outright lied when applying for the job, telling the manager I knew how to stick shift like a virtuoso. Two blocks outbound, the vehicle suffered clutch burnout and I suffered utter humiliation, calling for a tow and then, standing in my freshly starched Good Humor whites, getting the chew-out of my life from the boss. But they kept me on, and soon I learned the nuances of double clutching and coaxing that old beater through a profitable day’s outing as a relief driver in Hudson and Bergen counties.
While serving in the Army Reserves from 1964 to 1970 as my unit’s company clerk (typing and literary skills honed in the newsroom), I generally had at my disposal the ubiquitous Willys Jeep of World War II and Korea vintage. But then the Army switched models and the new version with independent suspension had a nasty tendency to tip in turns. This was much on my mind as I drove in convoys to Camp Drum on the Canadian border for summer trainings. But I never got behind the wheel the unit’s 2 1/2-ton trucks, known as deuce-and-a-halves, or the monstrous 5-ton wrecker, the personal property of Sergeants Corigliano and Scarfone, who customized it with stencils of the Playboy bunny.
Despite a highly satisfying newspaper career, my fantasy has persisted for decades. I still drive my wife to distraction by watching every big rig on the road, be it tanker, flatbed, dump, or container, instead of the pavement ahead. And although I’ve read about the hard life of long-haul truckers, the training-school scams, the unfair system of being paid by the mile instead of by time in the cab, absences from home for long periods, bad food, and the wear and tear on the body from constant jostling, I only fantasize upsides as my inner trucker keeps calling.
I’m just shy of 80 and not about to hit the road in a tricked-out Kenworth or Peterbilt. But I was slightly gob smacked last month to read an obituary in the New York Times about Duvall Hecht, a stunningly successful pilot, Olympic gold medalist in rowing, and the inventor of Books on Tapes, which he dreamed up on long commutes to his banking job and then sold to Random House for millions. Comfortably retired and in his 70s, Hecht took to the highway and drove 18-wheelers cross-country for what his wife, who sometimes accompanied him, described as the happiest years of his life.
Un-Jewish? Perhaps. Un-thinkable? Hmmmm.
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a retired editor of the Star-Ledger and a copy editor at the Jewish Standard and New Jersey Jewish News. He did not write this while driving.