I was born in central Illinois and grew up in a very small town named Mason. The town was planted beside the railroad, the main north and south line from Chicago to New Orleans, and the highway that ran through Mason was the primary road for the same route. Back before the Interstate was put in, Highway 37 was the way to get from the top of the midwest to the bottom of the south, and it was a well-traveled road. We lived right next to 37, and I undoubtedly learned to sleep to the sound of diesel engines roaring by. By first grade my parents had taken over Layton's Cafe and 24 Hr truck Stop, and my life with semis got even more serious.
The station, as we called it, was not a big place, but it seemed large to me then. The gravel driveway was big enough to hold several trucks and trailers as the drivers ate at the cafe and filled up with fuel for the long trek south. The drivers were known by name and knew us by name, since they were mostly regulars. Hard to imagine in these times, but my mom and dad would talk about drivers they knew and discuss them like old friends – which they were, in many ways.
I loved the big noisy trucks, and how they would fill up the parking area. I also loved the music that the drivers and the waitresses played on the little jukebox that we had in the station. That's probably where I learned to love country music, which led to rock and roll and eventually to the Beatles. I can still listen to an old trucker song just as easily as a Beethoven sonata, and I am thankful for the education I got from those 45s spinning around.
When I was in high school my aunt was a waitress at the big truck stop in Effingham, the “big city” compared to Mason. I got my first job there as a busboy when I was old enough, and I remember arriving at work in the dark on summer mornings and smelling that distinctive odor of diesel smoke as it wafted across the parking lot. Trucks were still coming and going all the time, but they were now traveling the Interstates, and while a few drivers were well known, there were always new ones in the restaurant.
After a couple of years of college, I went to work at a factory and learned to back empty flat bed trailers into narrow loading docks. The truck I drove was called a yard truck, and it was nothing like the big rigs that came in to pick up the loaded flatbeds. But I could call myself a truck driver, never mind if I didn't have a commercial license. That was a fun job, even in the Illinois winters when I had to melt the ice off of the brake lines with a blowtorch.