Childhood memories are one of our favorite things here at BoomerCafé, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Mike Keefe of Denver, longtime editorial cartoonist for The Denver Post, is putting his together in a memoir, a proud piece of which he shares with us today. It’s about his very cool dad.
The sudden change of direction and speed wakes me. I look over at Dad. The green glow of the Mack truck dashboard lights up my father’s face as he spins the steering wheel left-handed, his right fist working the gear shift, sending the engine into high register as we bump off the highway and roll toward a bank of fuel pumps topped with lighted globes. I am four years old. Almost five. I crank the window down and am met with diesel fumes, the aroma of distant places. I’ve never been so far from home. We live in San Mateo, visit my grandparents on Alvarado Street in San Francisco, walk the beach at Half Moon Bay and Coyote Point, but that is the sum total of my world travels. Now I am a couple hundred miles up the coast at night, riding with my dad, hauling freight.
Pacific Intermountain Express.
I think back to earlier today, before I dozed off. I’d been watching the telephone poles tick past the passenger window with pleasing regularity. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three — another one whipped by. Between them the wires rose and fell in gentle waves. I rolled down the window and thrust my hand out into the slipstream, flattening my palm into an airplane wing. If my angle of attack was too severe, my arm was buffeted wildly in the wind. But if I tilted my hand just so I could control my movements, climbing and diving. I closed one eye and sighted along my arm. Feathering the leading edge of my hand, I traced the path of the telephone wires. After a while I was certain that I was causing the wires to move at the command of my fingertips.
A feeling welled up in me. This is exactly what I wanted. I wanted this trip to last forever, sitting up high in a tractor-trailer rig, sitting next to my dad. I hoped that it would never end.
Sometimes that feeling revisits me at night.
There are a couple of other trucks idling at the pumps. Dad tells me that they never shut down a diesel even when they are refueling. Too hard to restart.
He maneuvers our rig around the others and docks next to a vacant pump. There is a powerful hiss when he sets the air brake.
“Sit tight,” he says and climbs down from the cab. Before he throws the door closed he gives me a wink. “Don’t touch anything. We’ll grab a bite in Ukiah.”
I feel the engine rumbling low like adult conversation from the other side of my bedroom wall at home.
I watch dad cross the lot for the office. Bugs are batting at the bulb above the entrance. He is a shorter man than the other drivers out on the asphalt. But there is a lift in his step that seems to add inches. A unique gait that I can always recognize, even at a distance. He disappears through the doorway that is flanked by an RC Cola machine and an oil drum.
The gear shift knob rattles. The needle on the tachometer beats slightly left and right of one thousand as the engine throbs. I slide over into the driver’s seat. I place my hands on the steering wheel. I can do this. Hoisting myself as tall as I can on the seat, I glint over the top of the hood, past the steel bulldog on the radiator cap and out toward the highway. Then I release the air brake.
The truck begins to roll, very slowly at first since there is just a slight grade to the to the gas station pavement. But seconds later I feel myself picking up speed. I am bound for the highway, heading north.
Suddenly dad’s face appears at the driver’s side window. He’s standing on the running board. The door pops open and he jumps in, his hip knocking me into the passenger’s seat. His hands work fast. There is a squeal and a belch and the truck bucks to a stop.
Dad’s face is white. He says nothing. Beneath his plaid flannel shirt, his chest is heaving. He looks at me then stares into the dark beyond the windshield. There is a curious light in his eyes. I am left with a murky sensation. Have I done wrong? I am not sure. It is one of the first of many moments with my father where I will feel lost in ambiguity.
Later, I am perched on a red leatherette stool at the counter of an all-night diner, dismantling a tall stack of buckwheat pancakes with knife and fork, maple syrup spilling over the boundaries of the plate. Dad, sitting next to me, shoves his coffee cup forward, signaling for a refill. A bald man behind the counter obliges him then points to me with a wooden spoon. “He puts it away like a teamster.”
Dad gives the back of my neck a pinch. “Drives like one, too.”