Christmas Eve, 1978. It was late. The rural Pennsylvania highway was empty. All over America, stockings were hung by the carbon monoxide detectors with care. Children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of mortgage foreclosures danced through their parents’ heads.
And Todd was standing on the shoulder of a county highway, freezing his backside off.
The snow was falling like TV static. He was trembling.
Now his Honda Concerto was broken down, dead, parked on the rumble strip like a monument to Japanese auto engineering. And since this was an age before cellphones, he was up a well-known creek without the aid of an oar.
The snow fell harder. Todd pulled his coat tighter.
Headlights appeared behind him.
Todd waved his arms like a cast member on “Gilligan’s Island.”
The high beams illuminated the spindrifts of snow, the air brakes squealed, and the semi truck vibrated the Earth as it eased onto the shoulder. The tractor trailer was the size of a rural school district. There was a wreath on the grille.
Todd should have been glad someone stopped to help, but he wasn’t. His heart sank into his stomach because he recognized that wreath. He knew that truck.
Descending from the cab was a man dressed in plaid, wearing steel-toed ropers. It was Todd’s dad.
It was the last person he wanted to see.
Todd and his estranged father were enemies. His father had left home when Todd was six to drive an eighteen-wheeler across the U.S.. The man had been absent from his life until Todd hit his mid-thirties. Over the last few years, the old man had been trying to reconnect with his broken family, but as far as Todd was concerned, it was too late for reunions. Todd didn’t hold a grudge per se. He embraced it.
His father looked beneath the hood of Todd’s car. His old man had always been good with cars, he knew exactly what the problem was. It was the distributor cap. No big deal. His father said it was an easy fix.
Except there was a minor problem. For starters, no auto part stores were open on Christmas Eve.
“Secondly,” the old man explained, pointing to the six hundred horses behind him. “I gotta get this truck to Albuquerque.”
He couldn’t leave his own son standing on the side of an empty highway in the driving snow. And there was no time to give him a ride back into town.
The next morning Todd awoke snug in the bottom bunk of a Peterbilt sleeper cab, traveling about seventy-five on I-70 across the the Midwest. He climbed into the front seat with his old man and in an awkward silence they passed the Buckeye State, making their way into Hoosier territory. The coffee was hot, the gas-station sticky buns were—well—sticky. And it was a weird few days.
Todd and his father drove thirty-odd hours across the Lower Forty-Eight. And somewhere near the Illinois border, something shifted between them. It wasn’t a major shift, but the ice began to break. The two men began to talk. Tensions started to ease, and they opened up to each other.
Pretty soon, they were even getting along. They passed Indianapolis, Columbia, and Saint Louis. They ate truckstop Barbecue in Kansas City, they drove through the broad fields of winter wheat, past Purple Rockies Majesty, and beneath a red Taos sky. Todd’s father told stories. Todd told a few of his own. They had a lot of catching up to do.
After several days spent driving through the arteries of the American highway system, the old man finally carried Todd back to Pennsylvania where he repaired Todd’s broken car in under ten minutes.
Before they parted ways, the two embraced, slapping each other’s backs. And it was the first time the father and son had exchanged anything more than a dirty look in years.
Then, his father said, “I gotta make a trip to Houston in a few days… If you weren’t too busy, I could use the company…”
He left his statement open ended. And it just died in the water.
Todd waited a beat too long to answer. After all, he had his pride. A father doesn’t just walk out on his family, stay gone for three decades, then make everything better with one road trip. Life wasn’t a Hallmark Channel special.
“Never mind,” said the old man. “Forget I even asked.”
“I’d love to go with you,” said Todd.
There were no tears. No Mancini music swelled in the background. On TV everything gets tied up in a nice, neat, little bow, roll the credits. But in real life, there are no bows. No film credits. There are only imperfect people who make mistakes. Todd climbed into his father’s truck.
And anyway, that’s how Todd became a truck driver.