In addition to his work ethic, one of the things I admired most about my dad was the confidence he had in his abilities. He seemingly was unafraid to try anything. It was evident in his career choices. His first love was driving a truck, the big ones, and he especially enjoyed those long, cross-country trips. He told me that one of his favorite experiences was to be in his truck, driving over the next hill and see some town or sight that he had never seen before. Because of his love for his family, he pretty much gave up on his truck driving career and found other job choices closer to home. After working for Holsum Bread and Party Steak, both as a route salesman, he decided to buy a restaurant. What? What did Dad know about running a restaurant? Nothing. And yet, because of his confidence in himself, he made a very successful run in “Bay’s Place”. I may have inherited Dad’s love of adventure, wondering what lies over the next hill, but his confidence in himself was not something that he passed along in his genes.
Somewhere between the bread route and the restaurant, Dad bought a dump truck and hired himself out delivering rock, chat and asphalt to various construction companies. It was a large dump truck, not like those little tiny ones you see driving around town with city stickers on the side. It was of the 24 ton variety. To me it was huge. When he bought the truck I was reminded of the old, steel, yellow Tonka truck I had received as a kid for Christmas. That was one tough truck, but just a toy. And he was one tough man.
Not long after he bought the truck we came home one day and found that Dad had been rushed to the hospital; an accident on the job. When he came home, his left hand was bandaged up and we found out that he had lost his ring finger. It seems that when he was checking the tarp on the top of his truck and jumped back down to the ground, his ring caught on a steel cleat; he returned to the ground while his finger stayed with his ring. Later, when he told me the story he said, “I just looked at my hand and said, ‘Damn, I just lost my finger’. I drove to the hospital and the doctor took a saw and removed what remained. He sewed up the end and now I have a stub.” No tears. No crying. Man was he a tough guy!
Whenever he would return to the house at the end of a work day, we all knew he was home because when he backed down the driveway, the backup warning bells would chime a distinct cadence. Ding, ding, ding! He was such a great driver that in just a minute or two he could back the truck down the drive and park it between the basketball goal and the bushes at the back of the house; effortlessly. Apparently, he thought it would be a good idea for me to learn his trade (funny thing is I don’t remember ever listing truck driver as one of my career goals).
One day, sitting in the living room watching Gilligan’s Island, I heard the ding, ding, ding of the dump truck backing into the driveway, but on this particular day the truck stopped about halfway down the drive. The next thing I knew Dad was shouting at me from the front walk, “Ronnie. Come out here for a minute.” Little did I know what was in store for me, but when Dad commanded, I came.
As I met him at the edge of the driveway, I noticed that the truck was still running and the driver door was wide open. Dad seemed excited when he said to me, “Jump up there and park the truck son.” After looking inside the truck and noticing a stick shift that indicated about twenty different gears, including reverse, I finally swallowed deeply and responded, “Uh, that’s okay. Maybe some other time.” Thinking quickly, which was unusual, I blurted out, “Besides, I don’t have my driver’s license yet!” (It’s funny how a lack of a driver’s license hadn’t prevented me from driving Jim’s Chevy Bel-Air those few times on the back roads around town. Of course, driving an automatic car in forward gear, learning how to steer into numerous fishtails as the car sailed up and down the dusty dirt road at sixty miles per hour is one thing; driving a twenty-four ton dump truck in reverse is quite another). Assuming that my declaration had put an end to this ordeal, I turned and began walking back toward the house; Gilligan was waiting.
Dad however, was not deterred. “Son, get back over here. You don’t need a license, we’re in our driveway.” It seemed that Dad was serious, so I returned and climbed up in the truck, a pasty white look on my face as I briefly looked into the driver’s side mirror. “Don’t worry son, I’ll show you all you need to know.”
The first lesson involved the clutch and gear shift. Dad was patient as he explained the intricacies of the fine art of shifting gears in a finely tuned manual transmission. “If you do this right son, you won’t have to leave reverse.” If I do it right! I didn’t even know what right looked like. I could only imagine wrong. After grinding the gears to the point of leaving piles of metal shavings at the bottom of the transmission and killing the engine numerous times, I was ready to go. I revved the engine once more, released the clutch, and the truck began to slowly move backward down the driveway.
Feeling pretty good about the whole thing I was beginning to gain confidence when I heard a loud, “Stop!” Slamming on the brakes and forgetting to engage the clutch, the truck shuttered to an immediate stop; the engine dying along with my confidence. Dad jumped up on the running board and leaned in the window, “Didn’t you see that tree back there? You were running off the driveway. Use the mirrors!” I looked out the window and could see small limbs and branches scattered about the driveway. By this time I was near in tears (I was known to cry at the drop of a hat so this wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary behavior for me). “I can’t do this, Dad!” I cried. “Yes you can son. Just listen to my instructions and do what I tell you.” I just then realized that there wasn’t a rearview mirror inside the cab like one might find in an automobile. This truck had two mirrors mounted outside the driver and passenger doors. I was supposed to back up using the two mirrors. Oh, boy. I was in deep trouble!
Starting up the truck again I continued to back down the driveway; sweating profusely the entire time, my head on a swivel trying to see out of both mirrors at the same time, wondering if I would run over some object, brother Timmy for example, and not even know it. I was doing okay, with only a few shouts of encouragement coming from Dad who was walking beside the truck the entire time; until it came time to actually park the thing. “Stop the truck!”
“Now son, this is where you need to use your mirrors. You have to cut the wheel so that the truck turns at a forty-five degree angle and you end up between the basketball goal and the row of lilac bushes. Got it?” I meekly answered, “I think so.” I knew Dad well enough to know that I wasn’t getting out of this lesson anytime soon. Still not too sure of myself I asked, “Can I come down and look at it from ground level?” Dad was fine with that. I climbed out of the cab and surveyed the situation. I knew I couldn’t do it. I was not going to successfully park this truck. “Yeah, this looks easy. No problem.” I confidently asserted. “You can do it son.” All this time my three siblings were probably peering out the kitchen window, glad that it was me and not them being Dad’s guinea pig.
As I returned to the truck and began backing it into the narrow space between the two landmarks, I never made it that far. Dad began frantically yelling and waving his arms, “Turn the wheel! Turn the wheel! No, turn it harder!” Suddenly I heard a loud crunch and could see in the driver’s mirror that the basketball goal was shaking after being “clipped” by the back of the dump truck and was no longer standing proudly erect, but was tilting grotesquely toward the ground. “Stop the truck!”
I was crying by now and timidly shut off the engine. I sat there staring out the window in front of me, waiting for what I knew would happen next. In an odd way I was relieved that it was all over, but I was hurt that I had disappointed Dad. “Get out of the damned truck!” Dad was angry as he “helped” me out of the cab. I stood sheepishly on the driveway and watched him complete the job. Good thing I didn’t pursue truck driving as my first career option.
For some reason we didn’t fix the basketball goal for a few days; the leaning pole, reminiscent of the tower in Pisa, remaining a testament to my lack of driving skills and failure to do a simple task like parking a dump truck. Dad later apologized to me for losing his temper, but he never again asked me to get anywhere near his dump truck. In addition to being confident and tough, Dad was also very wise.