Monday, December 10, 2012
CREATIVE WRITING: The Camel Run
THE CAMEL RUN
A True Story
The locals, and others in the know, call it The Camel Run. And the reason that they call it this rather unusual name has nothing to do with actual dromedaries. It’s meant to be a warning: you’d better fuel up your camel before you hit that stretch of highway, ‘cause there ain’t nuthin’ out there! Well, my brother Joe and I learned all about that little bit of local wisdom only AFTER we found his truck out of fuel on, yes, you guessed it, THE CAMEL RUN!
My younger brother, who was only about twenty-one at the time, was living his childhood dream; owning and operating a tractor-trailer. She was a beauty – a “cab-over”, bright red Peterbuilt, one of the most sought after models in the trucking business. He bought it used but it was in great shape and my brother was fanatical about keeping it that way. My father, who would do anything to see us get ahead, re-mortgaged our house to help him finance the purchase. And, man, my brother could really drive, too. It’s all he ever really wanted to do. I remember him as a kid, almost obsessed with caring for his Tonka Toy truck collection. So, while I went off to college, my little brother went to learn to drive THE BIG RIGS. And, now, he even owned one.
The problem was that, despite the fact that my brother was an incredible driver, he was still just 21 and a neophyte when it came to the “business” of trucking. Plus, the truck itself was highly technical and required specific and regular maintenance. All in all, it was a lot for a kid to handle and he struggled to make ends meet. I’m two and half years older than Joe and was just starting to find out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Despite my so-called higher education, Joe was way ahead of me in figuring out the direction his life would take. At least he knew what he wanted to do. He always did. I was still searching. At that time, I was teaching wherever I could find a long-term substitute gig. But the work was sporadic. This was one of those good thing/bad thing scenarios. It was bad because I was perpetually broke, but it was good because it gave me the time to explore life in a way that I had always wanted to. This meant that, when I had the time and Joe had a job that required him to travel almost anywhere in the country, we were going together. I couldn’t drive (no license) but I could help load and unload the truck and I’m damned good company, too! And believe me, since trucking can be a very lonely life, the importance of companionship cannot be over-emphasized.
It was Easter Time and schools were in recess. Therefore, I had time on my hands and Joe had a gig – a good gig: he was to pick up a load of industrial chemicals at Port Newark and deliver them to a warehouse just outside of Charleston, SC. He would then reload there for the return trip. Joe figured that, if all went well, we should be able to do it in a few days. Perfect. I had a teaching assignment coming up but that was still a week away. We packed a few things to last a couple of days and, with our old man seeing us off as he always did from the corner near our house at dawn, Joe and I took off together for another adventure. Just how much of an adventure we could not have imagined. . .
The trip down to South Carolina was uneventful. The weather was unusually cold, even for the South, but clear. The truck was humming along and we made great time. We put in 5-600 miles and decided to call it a day. We could make our delivery the next afternoon. As usual, we were broke as hell and had no money to stay in a hotel – even a cheap trucker’s one. We would spend the night in the parking lot of a truck stop. Joe’s truck was a “sleeper” and had a small bed located in the back of the cab. Joe was going to sleep there. It was only fair; he was doing all of the driving. Besides, it was HIS truck LOL. So, I had to sleep across the two front seats. The problem was that the seats were separated by this hump that, because of its “cab-over’ design, covered part of the engine. It was covered in carpet and acted as a sort of table. Unfortunately, it was also just slightly higher than the two seats. Therefore, I think that I have a permanent crook in my spine from sleeping over that hump!! My brother's little sleeping compartment that not only had a bed and a radio but could be zipped closed to seal it off from street lights and noise. Shortly after he said good night, Joe sealed himself in his little cocoon. I, on the other hand, was left to fend for myself. That damned truck stop had these huge lights illuminating the entire lot. I mean, we might as well have been back in fuckin’ Times Square! So, I took some of the clothes out of my bag and draped them over the truck’s sun visors so that, in hanging, they would block out at least some of those damned spot lights. It would have to do. I only needed a few hours of sleep, anyway. Besides, I could doze while Joe drove.
We both got a few hours of shut eye and raced the sunrise to see who would reach the highway first. Again, with the truck humming and the radio blasting, it was easy to feel good. It’s the upside of adventure. We accept the challenges for the moments of bliss, like this one. Joe and I were out on the open road; free men on a freeway. We were making our own rules. In fact, there were NO rules. We were young and we were fearless. Perhaps, because we were so young, we could not know fear. Fearlessness lies within the realm of the youthful. Consequences are not contemplated. They are only learned through the prism of time and experience. We were wild stallions on a mission.
We reached our destination right on schedule and unloaded and reloaded without incident. Our plan was to start back, do our 5-600 miles, and sleep a few hours before making the final leg home. Joe consulted his maps (this was in “ancient” times before GPS and there was an art to reading a map) to plan our trip back from our current location outside Charleston. He also had to figure our fuel consumption and plan the appropriate fuel stops. After checking his fuel gauges (there were two, one for each 100 gallon tank), he felt like we had enough to get through the first leg of our trip before we’d have to stop to take on fuel (by the way, NEVER say “gas” to a trucker – they use FUEL, not GAS!). Joe fired that BIG TRUCK up and we were soon on the highway, racing with the wind again.
After a short time, we hit what we came to know as The Camel Run. After passing what looked like a small trucker’s restaurant, we reached a stretch of road snaking through dense pine forest – and NOTHING ELSE! I mean there was no sign of life. No roads. No towns. No lights. No nuthin’! Just pine trees. I thought to myself, I’d hate to get stuck here. If we did, they might not find our bones until summer. But, there was no cause for concern. Right? I mean, we were humming right along. Then, suddenly, in the middle of this wasteland, the truck began to run really rough! The engine was struggling like it was starving for fuel. And, we were losing power, too. I saw the alarm on Joe’s face, which made me even more concerned. Joe, what’s goin’ on? He answers, I’m not sure, but I think we may be out of fuel. I ask, what does the fuel gauge read? A little under a quarter of a tank, he replies. Then, the truck coughed one last time and died. Joe managed to limp her to the emergency shoulder where we could try and assess what was really wrong. After we pulled over, he kept trying to restart the engine. She cranked but wouldn’t fire. The injectors just seemed to not be getting any fuel. We just HAD to be out of fuel. In a fuel injected Diesel, that’s a very bad thing. Well, as I said, Joe was a great driver, but there’s more to successful trucking than just driving. The gauges must not have been calibrated properly. We were indeed out of fuel. Joe knows now that he should have never cut the margin that fine. The level should not have been allowed to drop below a quarter of a tank. But, as I said, we were kids and we were learning – the hard way.
So, now, two mostly clueless young guys from New Jersey were stuck in the middle of some godforsaken Southern wilderness. And it was cold. Really cold. Record cold. We were in South Carolina and it was only in the 20’s! Radio reports warned that record low temperatures would plague the area for the next few days. Great. We were catching every break - NOT. Breaker, Breaker 1-9, Joe announced into the CB radio, trying to raise someone who might rescue us. Remember, this was in the days before not only GPS, but cell phones, as well. “CB”, (Citizen Band) radios were used instead. Anyone have their ears on? Joe implored. Truckers had their own language and vernacular that they used to identify one another as “brother truckers”. Help was usually more forthcoming if it involved a “brother”. Still, we got no response. Again. Breaker, Breaker 1-9 (hailing CB Channel 19 – the emergency channel). Is anyone out there? Silence was, once again, the response. There was nothing else we could do except keep trying until we either ran out of battery or someone happened to drive by. Breaker, Breaker 1-9. Amazingly, no one drove by on that lonely stretch of highway- no one - on either side of the road. We tried the CB again. Breaker, Breaker 1-9. Miraculously, the radio finally crackled with a response. It was a State Trooper who happened to be monitoring Channel 19. Joe explained our predicament. The trooper replied that he would come by with his cruiser within the half-hour to see what he could do to help. What a relief that was! At least we wouldn’t freeze to death in the forest.
When he arrived, it was decided that the trooper would take Joe back to that little truck stop/restaurant that we had seen when we first entered The Camel Run. There were no repair shops that the trooper knew of in that area but, perhaps, one of the truckers at the restaurant might know of one. I would stay with the truck to guard it and its cargo. Great. I got to stay behind to guard the truck and its cargo. Guard ? With what? In the middle of nowhere? In the cold? But there was no alternative. I would do what I would have to do. I watched Joe and that trooper pull away and back down that long, dark highway. Man, that was a lonely feeling. The truck stop was some distance back. It would take Joe some time to get there, find help (if he could) and then drive back. And, remember, there were no cell phones. There was no way of communicating to know if he was successful or when he might return. I prepared myself for what was sure to be a long, cold wait.
I crawled into the sleeping compartment at the back of the cab. We needed to conserve as much battery power as possible, so I didn’t listen to the radio. But at least I could wrap myself in some blankets and make an attempt at least staying warm, if not keep from directly freezing to death. While I was gathering the blankets, I found a stack of pornographic magazines stashed away in one of the compartments. They must have been left there by the previous owner. Joe wasn’t much into that type of stuff. I suppose that, by today’s standards, they were pretty tame; full -figured, naked women – lots of tits and asses, but no really graphic sex. Now, one would think that this might provide a welcome diversion to the cold and the quiet. But what was I going to do with a dozen girlie magazines – by myself – in the middle of nowhere – in the cold? One of my least favorite feelings is to be “all revved up with no place to go”! Still, I suppose something to read is better than nothing to read. I wrapped myself in a blanket and started thumbing through the first magazine. Well, none of the magazines rivaled “The New Yorker” but they did help pass the time. But it was hard to escape the cold. Without being able to run the engine, I had no source of heat. And, with the temperature now in the upper 20’s, the cold was becoming problematic. Damn Murphy’s Law – everything that could go wrong, WAS going wrong! But this is what “adventure” is all about. It’s about growing through learning to handle the unexpected. It’s about putting yourself in situations where you had better have your wits about you or the else the consequences could be dire. It’s about growing by burning first. That’s a term often used by athletes, particularly bodybuilders, to describe the process of muscle growth know as the pump, or being pumped. When you exert a particular muscle to fatigue, blood is rushed to the muscle to aid in its function. This causes the muscle to swell with blood, causing the pumped effect. And it feels great; almost euphoric. Some have even described it as orgasmic (it’s basically the same physiological process). It also means that, with the right nutrition, muscles will grow to compensate for all the exertion. But it’s painful to get there. You work the muscle until it’s fatigued and that’s painful. In fact, it produces a burning sensation in the muscle before you experience the euphoria of the pump. So, you see, you can’t grow without burning first. It’s funny because, now, upon reflection, I can say that. However, at that time, I was not so profound. I really wasn’t “thinking” about it. I was living it. But, and I believe that this is key, I never lost faith. Somehow, I knew that Joe would find a way. Failure was not an option.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me and if anyone would have been observing the situation, they would have been aware of it, too. In my efforts to stay warm, I had covered myself in a mountain of blankets while all along thumbing through a bunch of magazines filled with naked women – alone! I’m not sure exactly how long I spent shivering in the back of that cab, distracted only by cheap girlie magazines. I do know that, despite the cold, I dozed off for a bit. It surely felt like a long time but I know that in situations like that, time becomes distorted. So, I’m sure that it may have been a couple of hours but it was probably not longer. Be that as it may, Joe did return – and with help! I heard the sound of that diesel before I saw it. I jumped out of the little nest of blankets I had created to see them pull up. Joe was in the passenger seat of an old, beat-up Mac truck. I mean this truck (and apparently its driver, too) had been around. It was hard to find a part of the truck that didn’t have a dent in it. The windshield had a huge crack down its entire length. About the only thing that wasn’t dented or scratched was the gleaming hood ornament and the symbol for Mac trucks; a defiant bulldog! And she was running – running strong!!
It appeared that its driver was as well worn as the rig he piloted. Buddy was a local; born and bred in Charleston. He was of average size and build. I guess that he must have been in his forties. He was socializing at that little truck stop when Joe came in with our tale of woe. As it turned out, Buddy was very social! Joe would later tell me that Buddy did not hesitate to help a brother trucker in need and offered his rig and his service immediately. So, they piled into Buddy’s old Mac to rescue me and our rig. The plan was to hook us up to Buddy’s with a sturdy chain. Buddy would then pull us to a parking lot he knew of that was not too far away. The trailer would be safe there and Joe and Buddy could work on our engine problems. And those problems would turn out to be more severe than we could have known. It seems that running a large diesel engine like ours out of fuel is a lot more serious than if would have happened in a normal gasoline engine. The fuel injectors used in the diesel engine can be damaged, as ours would turn out to be.
We found this out, and more, from our host and savior, Buddy. He turned out to be a wealth of knowledge, not only about trucking and trucks, but about life itself. As we drove along, safe, with our rig in tow, Buddy told us (with a wry smile) why they called this stretch of road “The Camel Run”. He explained to us how difficult it might be to repair the damage we probably caused to the fuel injectors. And he offered to help us in any way that he could for as long as he could. He turned out to be remarkable in so many ways.
On initial impression, Buddy looked right out of Central Casting: send us a Southern redneck! Of course, he wore the prerequisite filthy baseball cap. He had a long, barely visible scar on one of his cheeks. He later explained to me that he received it in a knife fight with the jealous boyfriend of one of his flirtations. And he couldn’t bring himself to call The War Between The States, the Civil War. This flew in the face of Buddy’s American history. Instead, he insisted on calling it what he believed to be a more accurate title: The War of Northern Aggression! But this was all superficial. Buddy was no dummy. And he was no narrow-minded redneck either. He was educated as an engineer at The Citadel. He would gladly debate you as to why he called the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression”. And he could argue his points effectively. He was also kind, caring, and open minded. He invited us to stay at his home (a house trailer, of course LOL!) where he lived on the outskirts of Charleston with his girlfriend (originally from Long Island) while we got the truck straightened out. He kept surprising us with his selfless generosity. At one point, he even brought us to a grove of bamboo where he cut a length of it to make a “bong” for us! He told us in his thick as molasses Southern drawl to, fill that bamboo with some cool wine, the bowl with some good smoke, and draw it through that wine and hold it deep in your lungs for a few seconds. He closed his eyes for a moment and held his breath. Then he exhaled and opened his eyes, exclaiming, man, that’s gooood! Buddy was certainly NOT the “good ol’ boy, Southern redneck” we were told we should fear if we traveled to the South. And he showed us the wonderful city of Charleston as only a native could. I think he got as much of kick out of The New Yawkas (as he called us, trying to mimic our accents) as we did out of him.
The reason we had time for these things was that the truck was proving more difficult to repair than we could have even imagined and we were stuck in Charleston. Buddy and Joe spent hours trying to re-prime the fuel injectors so that the engine would fire again. Of course, as I mentioned previously, we were broke and, so, with Buddy’s help, we were trying to accomplish our task without the costly assistance of a real diesel mechanic. But it was proving to be too difficult. Hours turned into days and still the truck was not running. I had to find a way to get back. Joe could stay with the truck until it was fixed but my teaching assignment was set to begin in a couple of days. So, a course of action was decided (based on our limited finances, of course): Buddy and Joe would drive me to the nearest gas station where I would try to hook up with someone driving north. They would stay with me while I waited for a car to pull up to the pumps. If the car had NY or NY license plates, I would approach them and ask for a ride back to NJ. Business at the pumps was not exactly brisk and, as it had been from the beginning of this trip, my luck remained lousy. The few cars that did stop with the right plates were all going in the wrong direction! This went on for a couple of hours. Finally, I told Buddy and Joe that it was OK for them to leave. They really couldn’t help me at that point. It was just a matter of luck and persistence before I would inevitably catch a ride. I told them it’s part of the adventure. I just wished that I meant it a bit more – I was sorry to see them leave. I wished Joe luck, thanked Buddy from the bottom of my heart, we hugged, and off they went. I was alone once again.
I continued my “gas pump ritual” for the entire night –again, with no luck. It was cold, dark, and lonely. Yes, sometimes, adventures can get pretty miserable. And this one was getting there. Damn, it was cold! Hey, folks, I noticed your plates. If you’re heading back home, I could sure use a ride. Sorry, dude. We’re heading to Florida for semester break was the usual response. In fact, it was so frequent that I actually contemplated changing my plans and heading SOUTH! But, being the responsible idiot that I am, I decided to stick with the original plan and hope for a ride north. Finally, just before dawn, I noticed a 1957 black Chevy van with Pennsylvania plates pull up for gas. The two passengers in the van looked like “yuppie” college kids. But the driver was older, had long hair, and was missing a tooth. In other words, he was my kinda’ guy! And, besides, Pennsylvania may not be NY or NJ but it sure is a hell of a lot closer to home than South Carolina is. What could I lose? Hey, buddy, would you be heading north, I pleaded. I am, was his simple reply. Got room for one more? Sure. Hop in. I thought that my face might crack from the smile that broke over it. After he finished fueling up, I hopped in the back of that van so fast I’m sure that I created some type of vacuum!
My host turned out to be a signal engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the back of his van reflected that profession. It was filled with the tools of his trade. But it also had a mattress on the floor to rest on and, damn, it was warm! He had been in Florida on vacation and had picked up two college kids on their way back to school to help him with the driving. It turns out they were from Tenafly, NJ but were heading back to school in Pa. My host seemed not to be too crazy about them and, so, used them to do virtually all of the driving. I rode with him in the back of the van with him while the two college kids split time at the wheel. I remember that at one point, the sunrise was breaking and a golden beam shown through the back windows of the van, illuminating us in bright light and warming the whole compartment. My host then produced a joint and a guitar. He lit the joint, passed it to me and began a tune on his guitar: Old man, take a look at my life. I’m a lot like you were, he sang. I don’t think that I ever heard a sweeter sound in my life. The sun mixed with the smoke from the joint, filing the van with a feeling of well being that I had not experienced for days. In fact, I have seldom had that same sense of peace before or since. It was a seminal moment. And even though I have forgotten my host’s name, I will never forget his face, his kindness, or that moment. Whenever I hear Neil Young sing that song, I am transported instantly to that time and place.
My host planned to take I-95 until Fredericksburg, Va. and then head from there to Harrisburg, his ultimate destination. I figured that my chances would be better getting to NY/NJ if I stayed along the I-95 corridor. So, I asked him for one more kindness and to drop me off at a truck stop in Fredericksburg. From there I hoped to offer my service loading or unloading a truck in exchange for a ride back to NYC. He obliged, I thanked him, and I never saw him again. It was dusk now and I started doing my “thing”. There seemed to be plenty of trucks around, so, I hoped, it wouldn’t be too difficult to hitch a ride. Well, as it had been for the whole damned trip, if I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have NO luck. It seemed that virtually all the trucks were heading south! I couldn’t buy a break. I must have approached a dozen trucks. Nothing. One redneck (yes, despite Buddy, some Southerners do fit that description!) even had the balls to respond to my question about heading north with, no, I’m not and I wouldn’t take your kind anyway. WTF?! I suppose that he was referring to my long hair when he said “your kind”. I told him that he could drive with anyone he wanted, but he could spare me his bullshit!
After trying unsuccessfully for nearly an hour, I determined that I was not going to spend the greater part of another night begging for another ride! I had reached my breaking point and I was anxious to finally get home. I had some money left. If I remember correctly, it was about $30. I found out that there was a bus station about a mile from where I was and that there was a bus that could take from there to D.C. From D.C., if my estimates were correct, I would have just enough money left to take a Trailways bus to NY. I started walking to the bus station. Checking the time, I knew that I had to hustle if I was going to make that bus. Walking became running. Breathless, I just made it in time to catch the last bus. At last, I could finally sit for the trip from Fredericksburg to D.C. and then, hopefully – finally – home.
By the time I had reached D.C. it was already dark and I had miles to go before I could really sleep. The ride to NYC would take about 4 hours, meaning that I would arrive in NY sometime well after midnight. Then, I would still have to get from NY to my apartment in NJ. And I didn’t think that I would have enough money to take a bus home much less a taxi. I would have just about enough to make one last phone call (remember, no cell phones!) and I would use that to call in a favor from a friend. So, I bought my ticket and boarded the bus for the long ride up I-95. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t see much from the window of the bus but that was OK. I was exhausted and I had seen plenty already. What should have been a 3 day trip turned into nearly a week. And I still wasn’t home yet! I drifted in and out of a light sleep, reflecting on all that I had experienced. I wondered what Joe was doing with Buddy and what they would do in the morning to finally get that truck running. I thought about the ‘57 black Chevy van and the wonderful moments I had in its belly. I considered how many miles I had come and how many more I had to go. I had met every challenge, was enriched by the experience of it and by the people I met along the way. I had done my “job”.
I arrived at the uptown Port Authority Bus Terminal sometime around 1 a.m. I used my last bit of change to call a friend who owed me a favor (I know sounds a little like “The Godfather”) for a ride. In the first bit of good fortune I had in a week, my friend was home, answered the phone, and (reluctantly) agreed to return the favor and pick me up at the bus terminal. By the time he collected me up and deposited me at my apartment it was about 3 o’clock in the morning. I had been on the road, literally, for over 36 hours. I melted into my bed and slept the entire next day.
Joe and Buddy managed to get the truck running after I made it home and Joe joined me shortly thereafter. We kept in touch with Buddy and his girlfriend for a few years but then we lost touch. Neither one of us have heard from him in a long, long time. I never knew what happened to the railroad man in that ’57 Chevy. Joe made a go of it with that Big Truck for a few more years and we had many more (mis?) adventures together. But the care, storage, and maintenance of the truck just got to be too much and Joe had to sell her. He still drives trucks, but those of a large food company now. No, the “Pete’s” gone, too. They are all gone, but not forgotten. They, like The Camel Run, now live in my memory.