7/28/05 A Truck Drivin’ Man
When I was a kid my father was a truck driver. Sometimes he would be gone for days on end and I would be raised by my mother and two older sisters. Sometime I think that it why I get along with women so well.
When I was in third grade my father was off work for a day and I refused to go to school. When my mother told the school why I wasn’t absent they gave me a legal holiday for the day.
My father liked to tell a story about me when I was very young. Not even in school yet. He said that he came home from the road and was very tired. I ask him to talk to me and he said he had to sleep. I told him, “That’s OK, I’ll wait until you’re done,’ and then I sat on the edge of the bed waiting. When he saw that I was serious he got and talked to me awhile.
When he got older the truck driving wore him down. He was always in and out of jobs. Sometimes he would be off work for months. During these times he would sleep on the couch for days at a time. I sometimes wonder if he suffered from depression. A subject people didn’t talk about much in those days.
By the times I was a teenager he was swallowing handfuls of amphetamine so he could drive all week without sleeping. He would take 20 or 30 pills at one time. That amount would kill most people. He would go from doctor to doctor asking for ‘diet pills.’
Then after driving all week without sleep he would drink all weekend so he could sleep. Sometimes he would go so long without sleep that he would fall asleep in restaurants. More than once my mother had to pull his face out of his plate of food after a crash landing. The combination of uppers and downers made him a little crazy. He was never physically abusive, but he could sure make a lot of noise. It seemed like he would yell for days on end. Often he said things that were completely ridiculous.
“Goddamnit, Louise I haven’t eaten in three days. Can’t a man get a fucking thing to eat around here?”
My poor mother would reply, “I just made you breakfast an hour ago.”
His bellowing was enough to make life miserable. As a teen I swore I would never be like him when I grew up. After he died my sister told me a story that my mother told her. Apparently my grandfather (whom I never met) was very mean and physical violent. When my oldest sister was born my father was afraid to hold the baby because he feared that he would be like his father and hurt the child. Finally my mother placed the baby in his arms to forced him to face his fears. Because of my grandfather’s violence my father swore he would never hit his own children, and he never did.
I look at this as a project of decreasing generational violence. My grandfather was Polish. My real family name was Woytjna. They changed it to avoid prejudice.
I currently live in an old Polish community in Brooklyn and those Polish guys are nuts. If you go into their bars all they want to do is pick a fight with you. I try to void them altogether.
My father never said much to me about his own father, but he did mention that he shot his and his brother’s dogs, just for fun. He also once told me that his father took the family cat and hurled it against the wall.
When I was small one of my first memories is of my father telling me that one of the worst things you could do was hurt an animal.
I never put the pieces together until after he died.
After years of taking pills (‘bennies’ as he called them) and not sleeping, it began to get the best of him. For awhile his life got tangled up in the teamster’s union and all its craziness. He took part in many of their strikes and protests. One method of protest they used was to stand on the highway and force trucks to stop who were not supporting the strike. It was a nutty business to begin with. The one thing that was illegal was to stop a U.S. Mail truck. Of course, dear ole’ dad had to be the hot-shot to stop a mail truck, which landed him in jail for the night.
Later, after endless strikes he found himself on the other side, by driving during a strike. On one occasion he come home with his windshield broken. It turned out that a striker had dropped a cement block off of an overpass onto his truck.
Around the time Hoffa disappeared things got increasingly dangerous. The terminal of the trucking company he worked for was blown to the ground when someone placed a bomb inside.
At another time he told me that the same company had a side business selling dope. It seems they were growing their own pot outside of Pittsburgh. They got word that they were going to be busted the next morning so they got their people to plow up all the pot fields before morning came.
Near the end of his trucking days he came down with a bad case of pneumonia, but kept driving without sleep until he became delirious and began hallucinating. Between the unions involved with organized crimes and the companies involved with criminal activities and the Feds trying to bring them down, rumors of undercover agents were rampant. In his delirium he began to see people looking in the windows of our house he became so paranoid. In this state he was ready to go out on another road trip until my mother finally put her foot down and took him to the hospital.
Eventually he got completely entangled in the web of confusion created by the unions, organized crime, the government, and the trucking companies. When his trucking company wanted to fire some longtime employees they gave him two separate places he had to be at the same time. When he was only in one they fired him. The union took the case to court, but the judge refused to let his lawyer provide any evidence in his defense and the case was lost. He claimed the judge had been paid off. That pretty much ended his trucking career.
After he quit trucking he was still addicted to the amphetamines. Later the drugs brought on a new obsession. He became convinced that there were splinters or pieces of metal in his hands. He would stay up all night picking at his hands with a needle until they were raw and bloody when the morning light came. When he finally got his hands X-rayed it turned out there were calcium build-ups in his hands, but there was nothing the doctors could do about it. After that, he seemed to forget the whole thing.
Years later he and my mother were having severe financial problems and had to move in with Leona and I in our house in the woods. It must have been horrible for them. I am sure they didn’t feel at home there. My father must have felt like a failure for not being able to stand on his own.
My father was an alcoholic most of his life. Usually he drank Iron City Beer. When he drank hard liquor he completely lost it. One autumn day during that period a couple of his younger trucking buddies took him out and got him drunk on whiskey. Then they gave him a double barrel shotgun and tried to get him to shoot the owner of a trucking company they had it in for. Luckily he didn’t do that. When he didn’t return home for hours I went looking for him. I found him sitting in the woods with the end of the shotgun in his mouth. I begged him not to do it and he collapsed into the leaves sobbing, “I don’t want to live anymore.” After that he finally stopped taking the pills and mellowed out a bit.
Despite all the negative stories I relate, when he died none of his children held any anger towards him. Whatever demons he wrestled with, you could see the struggle of the war he was waging within himself.
Both of my parent’s were depression era children who dropped out of school in the eighth grade and seemed unprepared to deal with the changing world we live in. They did the best they knew how in a world they didn’t understand. Both gave everything they had to their kids. We had a strong sense of family, we always knew we had their support and had a home to go to. We always felt loved.
My father had another side that was childlike and playful. He knew everyone in town and always had a joke on his tongue. He was outgoing to embarrassing extents. In a restaurant he would be teasing the waitresses and yelling across the room to people he knew.
He was energetic and surreal. Sort-of a living performance artist – who had no idea what a performance artist was. He was usually the butt of his own bizarre jokes, in a manner similar to Andy Kauffman. Often acting the idiot or saying something totally absurd.
He liked to choose a bad joke and tell it again and again for years on end. Often two or three times a day to the same person. He wore you down until you laughed at the absurdity of his behavior.
A favorite prank was to wait until my mother was doing the dishes and then yell at her, “Louise I told you to do those dishes! Now get out here and do them right now.”
She would respond, “Are you blind? I’m standing right here doing them.”
Then we would turn to me with a surprised look on his face as if to say ‘can you believe she fell for that?’
If I ate with him in a restaurant with a group of people he liked to offer his used tea bag to me and say, “Do you want this? Are you still collecting these?”
You had to think twice about everything he said to figure out if it was serious or a joke.
I got news that my father had cancer on the day of The Imperial Orgy Masquerade Ball. The ball was one of the biggest achievements of my life, so getting the news on that day seemed particularly poignant.
He tried a few chemo sessions, but it didn’t seem to help so he decided to just accept his fate. He lasted about four months. He didn’t want to die in the hospital. Luckily my sister and aunt are both nurses and stayed with him during his final weeks.
My sister related that the cancer caused gastric problems for him. In the last days he went into a mild coma. She said he came out of the coma long enough to utter his last words, “Who shit?”
In the moments before he died he sat up and held his arms out towards the ceiling and moved his hands as if reaching for something.
He had prepared everything for his funeral and burial. A few years before he had purchased life insurance from a television ad aimed at elderly people. Unfortunately when it came time to pay out the benefits it turned out to be a rip-off. This meant there was no money for the funeral expenses.
It seemed an all-too-fitting postscript on a working class life.